Improved defense pays off for Spirit with victories Stankovic's emphasis has become team's, too


It didn't take Spirit coach Mike Stankovic long to convince his players of the right way to play defense.

"Mike showed us a way to win," defender Lance Johnson said. "By working on defense, offense will come. That's how you win championships. We have a lot of respect for him. The man's a warrior. You can't not listen to him."

In less than a week, they had absorbed Stankovic's way, in time to throttle the Detroit Rockers, 13-8, in his coaching debut.

The Spirit has been rolling ever since. Entering tonight's road game against the Harrisburg Heat, the club has won a season-high eight straight and is 9-1 under Stankovic.

It is largely being done, the players say, with defense.

"Mike sat us down that first week and told us, demanded, that defense had to be more of a team effort," said second-leading scorer Kevin Sloan. "He put it to us plain and simple: 'This is what it takes to win.' We all took his words to heart."

During Stankovic's tenure, the Spirit has outscored opponents, 164-93. Only the Milwaukee Wave (346) and Kansas City Attack (386) have surrendered fewer points than the Spirit (426).

A defender himself, Stankovic would blow a whistle to "freeze everybody" during practice drills the first few days. He corrected mistakes on the spot. "After losing possession, I want them to drop back as soon as possible, to prevent a counterattack," Stankovic said. "Whoever's closest to you, mark him. Stay tight to people without the ball to cut off passing angles. That way, you force turnovers."

Said goalie Joe Mallia: "If there's one thing he has drilled into our heads time after time, it's the importance of team defense."

Not just the goalie and the two defenders, but the midfielders and forwards, too.

"Before, we were more spread out, not compact enough," defender Ronnie Simmons said. "We were more dependent on the midfielders and defenders to control the defense. Now, the second we lose possession, everyone automatically thinks defense."

The players point out that the fault couldn't be pinned entirely on Dave MacWilliams, who stepped down as coach when the team wasn't responding to him and had lost eight of its last 11 games and dropped from second to fourth place in the NPSL's 'f American Division.

"It wasn't all Dave's fault," Sloan said. "We looked in the mirror."

Spirit tonight

Opponent: Harrisburg Heat

Site: State Farm Show Arena, Harrisburg, Pa.

Time: 7: 35

Radio: WWLG (1360 AM), WASA (1330 AM)

Outlook: This is the second of seven straight away games ending the regular season for the Spirit. The Spirit has a season-high eight-game winning streak and is 9-1 under new coach Mike Stankovic. Both teams have clinched playoff spots. The Heat leads the season series 3-2, but Baltimore and Harrisburg haven't met since Stankovic took over. Stankovic (hamstring), Jason Maricle (hamstring) and Barry Stitz (ankle) are questionable.

Pub Date: 3/09/96

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