Blast midfielder Tony Donatelli had his own version of a Game 7, bottom-of-the-ninth, bases-loaded-with-two-outs moment at this time last year. He knocked it out of the park.
The deciding game of the Major Arena Soccer League championship series went into overtime and he was responsible for bringing home Baltimore's eighth professional indoor soccer title, scoring the clinching goal 14 seconds into extra time to give the Blast a 14-13 win over Sonora in Hermosillo, Mexico.
Donatelli described the feeling as euphoric. It's no wonder.
"We had so much invested into it, worked so hard for such a long season through ups and downs and then the playoffs — every game seemed like it came down to the last play. At first, it's almost like a feeling of relief that everything had paid off, and then excitement," he said. "When I was celebrating, I don't know what I was thinking to be honest, everything was going through my mind. But as we sat back, we looked at such a crazy run and how everything just all come together for us and went our way in the end. I don't know if another run will happen like that again, but hopefully we can repeat it this year."
This year, the Blast won the MASL's Eastern Division with a 14-6 mark. Now comes their chance to defend their league crown.
The postseason begins at 7:05 tonight, when the team hosts the Harrisburg Heat (10-10) in the first game of the Eastern Division finals at Royal Farms Arena. The teams will then travel to Harrisburg on Tuesday for Game 2 — set for 7:35 p.m. — with a potential mini-game to follow, should the series be tied.
Donatelli, 32 and the team's leading scorer, likes the team's chances to repeat. And why not? The Blast have reached the championship series in each of his first four seasons, and have won two titles.
"I think it's just guys stepping up their games," he said. "We have a lot of experienced players that have battled through championship seasons and come out on top. So I just think we just have so many clutch players, it's hard to defend against us because you don't know who will step up when the time comes. So I'm confident in these guys and know we're going to get the chance again."
Chances are Donatelli will step up. His trademark since joining the Blast has been consistency. This season, with star forward Lucas Roque on leave for the first half of the season and stalwart defender Pat Healey retiring before returning in late December, more was placed on Donatelli.
Named a team captain, he has brought leadership, mostly by the way he regularly goes about doing things the right way. He has shown sacrifice, playing in the midfield instead of forward to take on a bigger role defensively. And he's brought steady offensive production with 19 goals and 23 assists for a team-high 42 points.
"Tony is like Italian wine — the older he gets, the better he gets. That's the way me and the guys describe him," third-year forward Vini Dantas said. "He's not fast and he doesn't have crazy flair, but he is so smooth and on point. He knows just how to keep the ball away from you, how to place it where he wants to. I've played indoor and outdoor with him, and he also shows so much class in everything he does on the field; it's unbelievable."
Donatelli's experience, poise and smarts shined through in the big moment in last year's championship clincher.
The Blast started the overtime on a power play, so he first reminded his teammates how successful they had been all season with the man advantage. He encouraged them to be patient. Playing on a small field, he knew a quality shot could come from anywhere. He was parked at the right side with Healey at the top running the power play. The first time Healey passed him the ball, Donatelli noticed the defender on his side had overcommitted trying to get it.
"So I played it back to [Healey] in hopes he would give it right back to me. He did, and that gave me the opening and I was able to find the back of the net," Donatelli said.
The play was a microcosm — greatly enlarged — of Donatelli's career with the Blast.
"Soccer is a simple game, but one of the toughest things to do is play it simple, and Tony does that," Blast coach Danny Kelly said. "He's always in a good spot. Whatever the case may be, knowing his awareness, knowing what his options are — he's always playing the right ball. So being able to play simply and effectively really sets him apart."