Spirit begins anew against Heat


The Spirit is groping for the switch, trying to turn it on again.

The team that won 23 of its first 35 games concluded the regular season with five straight defeats and dropped from second to third place, thereby losing the home-field advantage in the National Professional Soccer League playoffs.

So a question arises: Can the Spirit pull itself together and beat the Harrisburg Heat when it opens its best-of-three American Division semifinals series tonight at 7:05 at the Baltimore Arena?

"We were in every one of those five games until the last couple minutes," said Jon Parry, the club's second-leading scorer, noting that the Spirit lost the five by a total of 14 points. "In the back of our minds, we're a little worried, sure, but this is do or die. If we win this first game, we should be OK."

Omid Namazi, the Spirit's top defender, thinks the losing streak was generated by the team's failure to bear down after a playoff spot was assured.

"We were content just to be in the playoffs, so we relaxed," Namazi said. "We'd get up 10 or 12 points and sit back. It's a different story now. Lose and we're out."

Proclaiming it a "new season," leading scorer Kevin Sloan points out that the Spirit usually won when it had to. In its two grueling three-games-in-three-night stretches, for example, the Spirit won twice in each.

"Those were crucial times when we had to do well, and did," Sloan said. "That's something to reflect back on now. We do have the ability."

Harrisburg coach Jim Pollihan says he will not allow the Heat to be anything but wary of the Spirit, despite Baltimore's season-ending five-game losing streak.

"We don't ever look at that as an advantage," Pollihan said. "When it became evident Baltimore wasn't going to make a run for first place, they needed extra motivation. They had a tough schedule at the end and played in some buildings where it's tough to win. It's hard for a team to find extra motivation in a situation like that."

For the third straight year, the Spirit finished with a weak second half. The past two seasons, Harrisburg swept past the Spirit in the playoffs without losing a game.

"Those series have to be forgotten," Pollihan said. "We can't look at it as if it's an easy job. Their team makeup is different. We're quite different. Both teams had 23 wins. We were 3-3 in our head-to-head games. This is a tossup."

After dropping seven straight to Harrisburg over two seasons, the Spirit took three in a row before losing two weeks ago when the Heat erupted for four three-point goals, an uncommon number for one game much less one team. The league average this season was a record 1.43 three-pointers a game.

"Four three-pointers -- that doesn't happen too many times," Namazi said. "The three times before that, we handled them. We have the team to beat Harrisburg. They don't have Franklin [McIntosh]. He was their go-to guy. Now we have him."

McIntosh, acquired from the Heat in December, could be the key to the series. He had 13 points in the two playoff games against the Spirit last season. This year, despite missing the first two Harrisburg games because he arrived late, he is the Spirit's leading scorer against the Heat with 22 points in only four games.

"My intensity goes up in the playoffs," McIntosh said.


Opponent: Harrisburg Heat

Site: Baltimore Arena

Time: 7:05

Radio: WWLG (1360 AM), WAMD (970 AM)

Tickets: Many available.

Outlook: The teams are meeting in the opening round of the National Professional Soccer League playoffs for the third straight year. The Heat eliminated the Spirit the past two years without losing a game. Harrisburg leads the all-time series, 13-8. Although the teams tied in the final standings with 23-17 records and in their season series, 3-3, the Heat earned second place, and the home-field advantage, based on most points in their head-to-head games, 99-87. They will play tomorrow night and, if a third game is necessary, Wednesday night in Harrisburg. Danny Kelly, Harrisburg's scoring leader with 131 points, had 22 against the Spirit. For the Spirit, Tim Wittman (pulled calf muscle) and Jason Dieter (sprained toe) are probable.

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