Blast coach Bobby McAvan said the signs of confidence are everywhere - in the locker room, at practice, on the home turf and on the road.
"I feel as a group they are confident," said McAvan. "We said and showed we believe in their ability, and when things would get a little too loose, we pulled it back a touch. Right now, they're smart about their play and coming with a lot of intensity."
The Blast is in Cleveland tonight to take on the Force in the opening round of the Major Indoor Soccer League's Eastern Conference playoffs. The winner will move on to Philadelphia and take on the defending league champ KiXX for the Eastern Conference crown on Thursday; the loser is finished.
Under normal circumstances, the Blast's .500 regular season would be considered unsatisfactory. But this was far from a typical season for the Blast, which enjoyed road wins over San Diego and Dallas last weekend to break even at 18-18.
The team had three head coaches in the first half of the season, a top player released and injuries that played a part in a rough-and-tumble 6-13 start. The Blast simply picked itself up, dusted itself off and went to work.
"I don't think there was a defining moment," said forward Tarik Walker. "I think it was just constantly trying to keep working at your game. Everybody has to feel great right now because we haven't been at .500 for a while. This team has come a long way."
Walker (64 points, including a team-high 26 assists) has led the resurgent offense. Fellow forward Giuliano Celenza, who has missed the past six games with a foot injury, remains out. Goalkeepers Scott Hileman and Brett Phillips have been a big benefit. McAvan decided to use Hileman against the Force, which finished 19-17.
The Blast took four of six from the Force in the regular season, including a 13-8 win in Cleveland on Feb. 8. The Force is led offensively by Giuliano Oliviero (team-high 81 points) and has received strong play in goal from Jim Larkin.
"It's two teams with a lot of experience and hot goalkeepers, so it should be a good battle," said Blast forward Lee Tschantret. "Any time you've beaten a team at their home, it gives you a little bit of a mental edge, because you know you've won there. But it's the playoffs. And they're going to have a bit of an edge, being at home, and we're going to have to take the game because they're not going to give it to us, by any means."
Much like his team, McAvan is quietly confident.
"Obviously, we have to play four quarters, but we can't give anything up early," he said. "We have to try to take their playoff crowd out of the game, frustrate them and then catch them and counter."