Rookies are making ever-increasing contributions as the Spirit continues its drive toward the NPSL's American Division championship.
Tarik Walker is an offensive force, Lance Johnson is a regular starter, Rob Ukrop is coming back strong following an injury, Ricky Bush is playing in place of injured Tim Wittman and Shawn Boehmcke is tightening his grip on the No. 2 goalie job.
Because of nagging injuries and a demanding schedule calling for 11 away games in the remaining 17, coach Kenny Cooper will use the rookies more and more.
The Spirit has three games in three nights -- tonight against the Buffalo Blizzard and tomorrow night against the Dayton Dynamo, both at the Baltimore Arena, and Sunday at Dayton.
"We plan to use the rookies a lot Sunday in Dayton," Cooper said. "It'll be a tough weekend. We're traveling a lot this second half. We don't want to run the risk of injuries by pushing people."
Walker, according to Cooper, is "the talk of the league." The former Virginia Tech star has 15 points in the last five games and, with a total of 43, is tied with the St. Louis Ambush's Kevin Groark for the lead among rookies. Walker leads the Spirit in game-winning goals with three.
"Tarik and Ukrop have brought us power and strength," Cooper said. "Last season, we got pushed around some, but nobody pushes us around now, nobody. We have enough size out there to be intimidating, which I like. We can win on sheer strength."
If Ukrop hadn't missed 11 games with a broken jaw, he doubtless would be heading toward a banner season of 80-plus points. As it is, he has 19 in 12 games.
Johnson is a rarity in the league in that he is a rookie defensive starter. Just as former local college stars Barry Stitz and Jason Dieter were thrown into the deep end as rookies last season, zTC ex-Towson Stater Johnson has played extensively.
Bush, also from Towson State, was activated from the developmental squad Dec. 28 when Wittman suffered a season-ending knee injury. He has played in three games, picking up his first point on an assist two weeks ago against St. Louis.
"Ricky needs to play," Cooper said. "He was a forward-midfielder at Towson, but we converted him to defense because it's easier to learn the indoor game there."
Boehmcke, out of Loyola, is scheduled to make his third start Sunday in Dayton. If Cris Vaccaro has recovered from the flu, he will play tonight and tomorrow night.
Opponent: Buffalo Blizzard
Site: Baltimore Arena
Radio: WWLG (1360 AM), WAMD (970 AM)
Tickets: Many available
Outlook: The game is the first of three in three nights for the Spirit and Buffalo. Each NPSL team has two such stretches during the season. The Spirit won its first game in five lifetime tries in Buffalo last Friday, and now the Blizzard is trying to end an 0-5 drought here. The Spirit's Paul Wright (sprained ankle) and Mike Stankovic (strained groin) are probable. The Blizzard (14-11) is third in the American Division, six games behind the Spirit (19-4). Rudy Pikuzinski leads Buffalo with 77 points and Jamie Swanner is the NPSL's second-rated goalie behind Baltimore's Cris Vaccaro. The Spirit is 13-1 at home. The first 3,000 fans will receive free Spirit team posters and can have them autographed by players following tomorrow night's game against the Dayton Dynamo.