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Youngest players give Spirit much-needed kick Injuries to veterans let newcomers step up


Coach Mike Stankovic shudders when he thinks where the Spirit would be without the rookies.

"We wouldn't be in first place," Stankovic said as he prepared the team for its road game against the Milwaukee Wave today.

The Spirit elbowed into first place in the National Professional Soccer League's East Division by winning two games last weekend, ousting the season-long leading Philadelphia Kixx and raising its record to 13-12.

The club is peppered with rookies, plus several players in their second NPSL seasons. The rookies are Mike Henning, Josh Houle, Todd Hicks, Sasa Zoric and Shane Dougherty. A sixth, Zesko Milovanovic, had 28 points in 21 games before returning to his native Yugoslavia last month.

The second-year men are Albert Oni, who played in 14 games last season; Spirit scoring leader Bo Vuckovic; Jimmy Glenn and goalie Jim McCombs, who appeared in two games in 1995-96 and has a 3-2 record this season.

"These kids have done an unbelievable job for four months," Stankovic said. "They've handled the ups and downs so well. You could see their frustration from time to time, but that was just growing pains."

Perhaps the best of the rookies is Zoric, another Yugoslav who is second on the team in points with 47 behind Vuckovic (91). Zoric may be a strong candidate for NPSL Rookie of the Year.

Henning, Hicks, Houle and Oni are the survivors of the Spirit's 36-man, three-day tryout session before training camp in September. They have combined for 41 points.

"We're still young, so we've been in and out, but we're learning all the time," said Hicks, a Bowie High grad and four-year starter at Towson State. "Unfortunately, some of the veterans got hurt, but that has given us a chance to play and develop."

Injuries have hit the club hard. Veterans Cris Vaccaro, Jason Dieter, Barry Stitz, Lance Johnson, Branko Segota, Ronnie Simmons and player-coach Stankovic have missed from four games (Stitz) to 21 (Segota). Doug Neely missed four to represent the United States in the World Beach Soccer Championships in Brazil.

"When you see so many vets among 21 players, you just expect to hang around and learn," said Henning, who went from Towson High to become the leading scorer in Randolph-Macon history. "I've started five games [and scored 16 points] -- that shows Mike has confidence in us and is willing to be patient. We've had to learn a lot in a short period of time."

Hicks, who has 12 points in 20 games, hoped to play as much as he has, but had no reason to expect to. "Whatever time Mike gives me, I can't complain," he said.

Spirit today

Opponent: Milwaukee Wave

Site: Bradley Center, Milwaukee

Time: 2: 05 p.m.

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

Outlook: The game is the only one for the Spirit this weekend, but the third in three days for Milwaukee. This is the second and last meeting between the teams this season; the Spirit won the first, 24-11, in December at the Baltimore Arena. The Wave is 8-2 at home. The teams' scoring leaders, the Spirit's Bo Vuckovic and Milwaukee's Michael King (once of the Spirit), are in the NPSL's top 10.

Pub Date: 2/02/97

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