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Towson kicks into high gear Young soccer team aiming for playoffs


The thought creeps into his mind, then gets shoved aside. There may be a time when Towson State soccer coach Frank Olszewski will reflect on what it would mean to compete in the NCAA playoffs, but not now. Not with a smattering of games, and some doubts, remaining.

Never before has Towson qualified for the NCAA tournament or been ranked nationally, not even in 1991, when the Tigers set a school record with 14 victories. But a new conference and some new faces could lift Towson to new heights.

Going into tomorrow's home game against New Hampshire, the Tigers are 11-2 overall, 4-2 in the North Atlantic Conference and No. 21 in the Intercollegiate Soccer Association of America coaches poll. Their seven shutouts equal a school record. Their production and confidence belie their youth.

Last year, when the Tigers were finishing below .500 and completing their final season as members of the Big South, Olszewski would start as many as six freshmen and hope for the best. The growing pains were evident.

"We had some low points," Olszewski said, "but you learn from them and come back a little wiser."

But not much older.

Most likely, the Tigers will start three freshmen and three sophomores in the field against New Hampshire. The goalkeeper will be freshman Ethan Jennings or sophomore Mike Stillman, each once-beaten and willing to share the minutes.

"They each have their own strengths," Olszewski said. "We sit down and look at things and try to evaluate what's going to be best for the team on that particular day. They've both responded very well."

Olszewski had only four seniors at the beginning of the year, then lost forward Josh Smith (Howard High) to a broken leg against Northeastern earlier this month. But the three who remain -- Josh's twin brother, Chris Smith, forward Todd Hicks and defender Erik Washington (Meade) -- are going out in style.

Smith and Washington anchor a defense that has given up seven goals in 13 games, including two in the most recent loss, in overtime, to Boston University on Oct. 8. They are joined by sophomore Ian Wildey and freshman Benjamin Zajac.

"We really do take it personally when we step on the field. We're one unit, and we take it to the maximum, pushing each other in practice and doing our jobs," Washington said.

Hicks has three goals, and his six assists raised his school-record career total to 27. And he has a pretty good idea why the Tigers are so much better than during his three previous seasons, two of which ended with losing records.

"We've always been a team that's had a good, strong defense, but now we've got some people who can score," said Hicks, an All-Big South and All-Region selection last year.

Towson's leading scorer is a freshman from Turku, Finland, Petteri Kaijasilta, who has nine goals and four assists. He is given brief mention in the Tigers media guide, sharing the last sentence of the outlook with freshman Richard Moller of Ludwigshafen, Germany, as players who are "expected to contribute."

At times, it seems as though they have carried the offensive load. Moller had the goal in Towson's second game, a 1-0 win over Old Dominion that some players believe was the turning point in the season. He scored twice in the next game, a 3-0 victory over Manhattan, and got the first goal in a 2-1 upset of then-No. 3 Maryland that, Washington said, "put us on the map, where most teams would look at us as a contender."

Kaijasilta has been the hottest Tiger of late, scoring six times in the past four games.

The question is, will these positive developments deliver that playoff berth? Towson can become part of the 32-team NCAA field either by winning the NAC tournament, which begins Nov. 10, or receiving an at-large bid. The top four teams in the conference are eligible for the tournament.

"I'm trying not to look into that crystal ball," said Olszewski, whose team is home Sunday against Maine.

For the seniors on his team, this final push toward the playoffs has taken on special meaning.

"It's a great feeling to be able to go out on a winning note," Washington said. "It's not too early to think about the playoffs, but we need to stay focused on what we're doing and make sure we take care of business now."

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