For Kixx, time for a turnaround The slumping soccer team will need to put its best feet forward in the conference title game.

Posted: April 03, 2003

Can the Kixx flip the switch?

They say they can. The Baltimore Blast think so, too.

"Good teams can turn it on when it matters," Blast coach Bobby McAvan said Tuesday. "Good players show up at times like this. It's a good sign if you can do that. They've got money players in their lineup. They've been there. They've done that."

The Kixx have some of the best players in the Major Indoor Soccer League, and know they need to be ready to play the Blast at 7:05 tonight at the First Union Spectrum for the MISL Eastern Conference championship.

It will be the first meaningful game for the Kixx, the defending league champions, since they clinched the conference's regular- season title on Feb. 28.

Since then, they have had little to play for.

Not anymore. The winner of this one-game playoff continues to the league championship series.

The loser, well . . .

"You're on the golf course," McAvan said.

The Kixx will face perhaps the hottest team in the MISL. The Blast have won seven of their last eight games, and their last two against the Kixx. On the other hand, the Kixx have lost seven of their last 11 games.

If the Kixx are concerned, they certainly have not shown it. They are cool and confident, and more than eager.

Coach Don D'Ambra, who also plays forward, said the team was tired of waiting.

"We understand what it takes," goalie Peter Pappas said. "We went through this last year, and we understand what level we need to play at to win the championship. We have a mature group of guys."

They have a healthy group of guys, too. The Kixx battled injuries for the last month of the season. Forward Joel Shanker, who finished the regular season second on the team with 64 points, has not played since Feb. 23 after he sprained an ankle.

That's a stretch of eight games. But he will play tonight.

"It's huge," Pappas said of Shanker's return. "He can put the ball in the net, but his defense is unbelievable. He can get back defensively and break up their plays. He's quick. He turns a three-on-one into a two-on-one for us."

Shanker started to practice just last week. He said he was ready to go.

"I was expecting to have a lot more trouble with it than I am," he said. "I seem to be a bit more mobile than I thought I would be."

D'Ambra acknowledged that the Kixx struggled at the end of the season, but was confident his team would turn it on tonight.

"Other teams are saying that we're not playing well right now," D'Ambra said. "The fact is that we've had guys nicked up. We had a month where the games didn't matter. Maybe it was a little unprofessional on our part, but I think we went in taking things lightly.

"Our team is fine. Our confidence is as high as it was when we were winning 10 straight. The guys want to play. They know there are only a few weeks left. We know how hard we're going to work. We're going to work hard regardless."

The Blast are counting on that.

"I see a team that's earned that spot," McAvan said of the Kixx' first-place finish and first-round bye. "How badly can you be playing? It's the whole Rocky mentality. They just don't go away."

Contact staff writer Todd Zolecki

at 215-854-4874 or tzolecki@phillynews.com.

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