Young coach gives Terps big-time kick

COLLEGE PARK — COLLEGE PARK -- Before he gets around to running soccer in the United States, Sasho Cirovski wants to continue to coax some of the nation's best into playing for him at Maryland, win an NCAA title with the Terps and have the sport's final four held at Byrd Stadium.

Cirovski is a 31-year-old coach/visionary/salesman who in one year has taken Maryland from the worst record in its history (3-14-1) to the second round of the NCAA tournament. To understand why the Terps were able to travel so far in such a short time -- and why he refuses to limit his possibilities -- go back to another incredible journey made by Cirovski.


"A lot of people in soccer don't think as big as they should," Cirovski said. "I've always set pretty high goals. Maybe it's because of where I came from."

That would be Vratncia, a rural village in Macedonia, which, until it declared its independence two years ago, was the southernmost state in Yugoslavia.


The Cirovski household didn't have electricity or indoor plumbing, and for three months in 1971, it didn't include parents, either. Sasho's were in search of a better life, and they found it in Windsor, Ontario, in an enclave of Macedonian immigrants.

"I was 8 when my parents sent for us," Cirovski said. "My brother [Vancho] was 10 and my sister [Diana] was a year and a half. All I remember of the plane ride was my brother throwing up all the way over and my sister walking into the cockpit. We never said we were going to Canada. We always said we were going to America."

Ontario turned out to be a land of opportunity.

A men's team in Windsor made room for a 14-year-old midfielder with a maniacal work rate. At 17, Cirovski would hitch a ride 120 miles to play for a team in London. He won a scholarship to Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and at 24, Cirovski found himself the player/coach of a Canadian Soccer League team after the coaching staff was fired in midseason.

He followed that with a stint as interim coach at Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and in 1991, Cirovski moved to Connecticut to coach at the University of Hartford, which had never been to the NCAA tournament.

By season's end, Hartford took eventual co-champion Virginia to four overtimes in the second round of the NCAA tournament.

Cirovski will get another postseason shot at the Cavaliers on Sunday in a second-round game in Charlottesville. The winner will advance to the NCAA quarterfinals. It is a familiar spot for Virginia, which has won or shared four of the past five NCAA titles, but a totally unexpected development for Maryland after two decades of steady decline.

From 1953 to 1971, Doyle Royal guided the Terps to 17 Atlantic Coast Conference championships and a share of an NCAA title. Then the rest of the ACC discovered the game, and Maryland fell behind, soccer being one of several programs de-emphasized to save money in the late 1980s.


The administration recently has taken several steps to reinvigorate men's soccer. It was given the full allotment of scholarships, and the soccer field is being turned into a 1,500-seat stadium.

Most important, the school hired Cirovski two seasons ago.

Cirovski attracts soccer players. Ace midfielders Tod Herskovitz and Chris Preheim transferred in, but Cirovski's best sales jobs have come in the homes of high school seniors.

A few days after his hiring in February 1993, Cirovski swooped in at the 11th hour and signed Fallston's Shane Dougherty, a Parade All-American. This year, the recruits included Leo Cullen, a midfielder from Minnesota who was Parade's High School Player of the Year in 1993, and Mike McIlwain, the best prospect in Florida.

And they have received an oral commitment from Bullis Prep's Steve Armas, the best player in the Washington, D.C., area.

"The guys I grew up playing with in Columbia looked at Virginia, North Carolina, Rutgers, George Washington when they were coming out of high school," said senior Malcolm Gillian, who went to Oakland Mills High. "Maryland was not viewed as a cool place to play soccer, but that changed when Sasho came in. The man's energy is incredible."


Cirovski assisted at tryouts for the state Olympic Development Program for girls. His wife, Shannon Higgins, helped build the North Carolina women's dynasty along with Terps coach April Heinrichs. Higgins runs the ODP and is the women's coach at George Washington.

Cirovski doesn't turn down a speaking engagement. He tried to bring the 1995 NCAA finals to Byrd Stadium. They went to Richmond, Va., but he'll likely try again.

Mostly, Sasho sells his Terps on the notion of challenging Virginia -- Sunday and in the future. That Maryland (14-5-1) will be without the injured Herskovitz and McIlwain makes the prospect more enticing.

"Look at the cover of our media guide," Cirovski said, pointing to the mountain on the brochure. "You can be dropped off at the top of the mountain or you can start out at the bottom and climb to the top. There's great exhilaration in the climb."