Barry Stitz's second season with the Spirit is one he would like to banish from memory. That was last season, when he was the man who spelled Paul Wright, the team's main offensive weapon. Stitz sat more than he played, scoring only 30 points.
That was a sharp departure from his first season when he scored 63 and was second in the voting for the National Professional Soccer League's Rookie of the Year.
"I wasn't on the field much and I wasn't real happy about that, but we started the season 17-3, so what can you say?" Stitz said. "The team was built around Paul. "Naturally my production wasn't the same. Then you lose confidence and try to do too much the rare times you are out there."
This season, with Wright gone to the Wichita Wings, Stitz is prospering again. Going into the game against the Canton Invaders tonight at the Baltimore Arena, Stitz is one shy of his single-season record of 63 with 11 games remaining.
"Playing behind Wright like that hurt Barry's development," player-coach Cris Vaccaro said. "It's tough to get into a game mentally when you're only playing five minutes out of a quarter. Now that he knows he'll get playing time, he has become one of our weapons again."
Stitz has been playing soccer since he was a first-grader in the Little Flower recreation program in Northeast Baltimore. One of his clinic mates was Jason Dieter, then in kindergarten, later a teammate at Archbishop Curley and now with the Spirit. When they were growing up, they lived three blocks apart.
"Because I was a year younger, we only had a year together in each age group, 10 and under, 12 and under, 14 and under," Dieter said. "Barry played right inside on the front line and I was left inside. We gelled and in a way became the exact same player. We read and played off each other, which made us smarter players as the years went on."
"The first time either one of us saw a soccer ball," Stitz said, "was in that clinic. We lost every game that year."
Ricky Bush, also a Spirit teammate who was a year behind Stitz when they played at Towson State, has seen steady improvement in him over the years.
"He's not the quickest player, but he makes up for it with positioning," Bush said. "Everything keeps improving -- his ball skills, field vision, understanding of when to dribble or pass, even his fitness. Every year he gets better."
When Vaccaro first got a look at Stitz, at a Spirit camp during the summer of 1992, he saw a player just out of college with good skills who was quiet and hard-working. What he lacked was experience.
"Barry's overall knowledge of the game has increased and that has become a strength," Vaccaro said. "Experience has raised his playing ability."
Dave MacWilliams, who as a first-year coach saw Stitz for the first time last summer, considers him "one of the best two-way players on the team." Rarely does MacWilliams see Stitz give the ball away or blow a defensive assignment. "I see a real
disciplined kid," MacWilliams said.
Opponent: Cleveland Crunch
Site: Cleveland State University Convocation Center
Radio: WWLG (1360 AM), WAMD (970 AM)
Outlook: This is the first of two straight Cleveland-Baltimore games and, for the Spirit, the first game in a three-in-three-nights stretch. The teams will meet tomorrow night at the Baltimore Arena. Cleveland, coming off a one-point loss to the Dayton Dynamo Tuesday, is the season-long leader in the National Professional Soccer League's American Division, followed by the Spirit. The Spirit and Crunch have split two games this season. The Spirit has signed midfielder Michael Brady, who played with Spirit coach Dave MacWilliams on the Blast during the 1986-87 and 1987-88 seasons. He was an All-American at American University. To make room on the roster, the Spirit placed first-year defender Chris Love on waivers.