THIRTY YEARS ON
THIRTY YEARS 0N: A look back at the weekend in the life of the Harrisburg Heat in 1992
First of three parts
Thirty years ago this week, Michael Lewis decided to spend a weekend with the Harrisburg Heat to discover what a team does on and off the pitch. This story is a sequel to Lewis' 1992 story of the Heat becoming the first indoor team to win three road matches in as many nights (actually within 48 hours). That story was posted on MASLsoccer.com. This story was originally published in the Jan. 30, 1992 edition of Soccer Week, a publication that covered the sport in the New York/New Jersey area, and is used with permission. There are several names you certainly will recognize from indoor and outdoor soccer, including Dan Kelly, Doug Miller and Mark Pulisic, among others. All photos with the piece were taken by Lewis.
HARRISBURG, Pa. - The old place was really rocking on Sunday, Jan. 24.
In more ways than one as 2,914 at the Farm Show arena sounded more like 29,140 after their hometown heroes, the Harrisburg Heat completed a near impossible weekend.
Quite appropriately, Glen Frey's rocking tune, The Heat is On, was being played on the arena's public address system.
The fans applauded the Heat. The team went to the middle of the field, waved to the appreciative crowd, walked outside the field and then did a victory lap around the arena.
After all, how many teams do you know have won back-to-back weekend games against first-place teams?
In this case, the league is the National Professional Soccer League.
On Friday, Jan. 22, the Heat sent a season-high crowd of 5.218 home happy with a stunning 21-14 victory over the Baltimore Spirit, who are atop the American Division.
On Sunday, Jan. 24, the hometown heroes went a step further, blanking the National Division leaders, the Wichita Wings, 13-0, in a rare indoor shutout.
"How sweet it is," coach Jim Pollihan said after the win over the Wings.
Indeed, it was.
"Baltimore and Wichita, wow," said John Casey, an ardent fan when he isn't a supervisor for Conrail.
"It just seemed like the arena was alive and actually became part of the whole game. Fans came alive and the team came alive. One feeds off the other especially after a weekend like that.
Nestled in south central Pennsylvania, some 165 miles from the borders of New York City, Harrisburg, the state capital, is a city of some 53,000 that seems to be a throwback to earlier days in this country. There is a can-do attitude here. Instead of whining too much about a failed situation, the townspeople would rather find a way to fix it.
So, it's not surprising that entire families are involved with the Heat as fans and as employees.
"It's a small-town feeling," Heat assistant general manager Greg Cook said. "A lot of people know a lot of people and it spreads through word of mouth.
"It's fun, easy, economical and entertaining. We don't get lost in a larger market that has football, basketball and hockey. We have made a little niche for ourselves."
The fans love it, too. The Heat averages around 4,000 a game, which is slightly more than half the 7,600 capacity of the arena.
But there was a solid core of fans.
"You can't wait to be there again," Casey said.
The Heat [at the time], was a second year NPSL team that followed the now defunct and nearby Hershey Heat that had several financial problems en route to its demise after the 1990-91 season. Enter the expansion Harrisburg Heat, which was viewed with a skeptical eye because of the problems of the previous franchise. Hershey is about 15 miles down the road from Harrisburg.
But things were different this time around as the team finished tied with the Canton Invaders with 24-16 records for the American Division title in its maiden season in 1991 92. The team was eliminated in the first round of the playoffs but was still considered to be quite a successful year.
Pollihan, a former U.S. national team player whose picture wound up on the cover of the very first issue Soccer Week in 1977, was named NPSL coach of the year for his work. This year the Heat got off to a promising 2-0 start but stumbled in its next eight matches, losing all of them.
An abysmal beginning like that might have put the coach on the firing line, but management stayed with Pollihan.
"One of the cardinal sins of sports is that management loses its patience and gets involved in areas they don't know or understand much about," said one front office official. "We decided to work it out with Jim."
Pollihan remembered the team management had many meetings during the losing streak. "But they weren't crisis meetings," he said. "There are three schools of thought when a team is losing. You can change the coach; you can change the players, or you can try to find out what the problems are and try to correct them. The easiest thing would have been, 'He isn't getting it done. Fire him.' We tried to talk through it."
Adding such franchises as the Wings and Cleveland Crunch, the competition became much more difficult in the NPSL this year.
"We knew the league was better," Pollihan said. "We were better. We were playing the same way we played last year. With the new teams there were more forwards who are better finishers. We were losing the ball in crucial areas of the field and our defending zone. Teams were getting 2-on-1's and 3-on-2s. We were getting beat on our own mistakes."
The Heat bounced back to win nine of its next 11 games improving to an 11-10 mark. Not anything special but definitely a marked improvement over the early going.
The Heat was a relatively young team with a definite Eastern New York flavor. Of the 18-man roster, six players had some sort of background from Eastern New York.
That included goalkeeper Joe Mallia of Syosset, L.I. and forward Mark Pulisic of Centereach, L.I., who played in the Cosmopolitan Junior League and the Long Island Junior Soccer League. There is forward Lee Tschantret, who attended SUNY-Albany. There's midfielder Franklin McIntosh, the team's leading scorer who made a name for himself with SC Gjoa (CJSL) and Forest Park (Long Island Soccer Football League) and New York Institute of Technology before turning pro. There's Dan Kelly, a New City (Rockland County) native who played for B.W. Gottschee (CJSL). There's veteran defender Richard Chinapoo, a former Cosmos and LIU graduate and an occasional member of Greek-American Atlas (Atlantic Professional Soccer Conference) when he wasn't playing with a roof over his head, who joined the team this season.
And that doesn't include general manager Pat Flynn, who was born and grew up in Brooklyn before moving out here.
Friday, Jan. 22
Spirit takes a plunge
Farm Show Arena lobby
It's two hours before the start of the Spirit match and the arena is starting to buzz with activities.
Manning the turnstiles at the main entrance on Cameron Street was Julie Wilt, with her husband John and 14-year-old daughter Jennifer, work as ticket takers, something they are perfectly suited for considering they have performed similar chores with the Harrisburg Senators, a Class A minor league baseball team (Montreal Expos).
While the job might seem mundane, Julie Wilt said that there was never a dull moment. Ticket takers must be constantly on alert for the correct game dates, a mistake that has happened, believe it or not more often than you would think.
"There's always something going on," she said. "Some will say, 'Here's the ticket for my mother. She's going to be here later.' We can't handle that. That's not our job."
Later in the evening, a traffic accident that took the life of a Heat fan occurred on Cameron Street. Suddenly, life got crowded on both sides of the turnstiles.
"It was very difficult," Wilt said. "Everybody wanted to go out and go gawk."
Outside the Spirit locker room
Baltimore Spirit Coach Ken Cooper, who was being interviewed by Heat radio announcer John Wilsbach for the latter's halftime show, has been involved in professional indoor soccer since the first Major Indoor Soccer League season way back in 1978.
He's seen it all and then some. "It reminds me of the early days of the MISL, run and gun," Cooper said. "You just go out onto the floor and spill your guts. The team we have has a lot of chemistry."
Asked if he ever thought of getting out of sports and soccer and into the real world, Cooper replied: "When you live on the brink for 23 years, I've lived in the real world. It's been hard. You live on the brink. Everyone in this business lives on the brink. It's not the practicing. It's not the coaching. It's the other things. It's selling the tickets. It's marketing, promoting and doing clinics. This got me ready for the future, whatever the future will bring."
In about four hours Cooper will learn about his short team at the Farm Show Arena.
Souvenir stand behind section 12
It's a busy night at one of the two souvenir stands.
You want a Heat sweatshirt? You can have it for $20, $30 or $35.
You want a Heat shirt? You can have one for $12, $14 or $15.
You want a Heat hat or pennant? You could have the former for $12 with a latter for $2 or $3 depending on the color.
"Sometimes it gets pretty crazy usually at halftime," said Maureen Flynn, the general manager's wife, who ran the booth with their 15-year-old daughter Meghan. "When people see we're starting to sell out in a particular item they get frantic."
Case in point:
The very first edition of NPSL trade trading cards was such a popular item as the entire case was bought out in a week. A second run for the entire league was ordered. The cards sold at $1 a packet.
Needless to say, the players, especially the younger ones, were enthused about their pictures winding up on the cards.
"It's exciting," Pulisic said. "You grow up with kids and idolized the players on the cards. Kids scurry for it."
Mallia agreed. "To see your face on one to see your face on one is nice," he said. "My mom liked it better."
Down on the field
Before the main event, a pair of local Under-12 teams, the Blue Mountain Blaze and the Swatara Sting played in a preliminary match. In fact, during the weekend the field was constantly in use because of a U-19 indoor tournament. In fact, the turf was considered one of the best indoor surfaces around. There was plenty of give on the Farm Show Arena's rubbery artificial surface because it had a dirt floor, unlike concrete or ice, like many other arenas.
"We get no complaints from visiting teams," Heat equipment manager Mike Butala said. "It's a springy surface. It's not hard on impact."
Built in the late 1930s, the Farm Show Arena was primarily for, well, farm shows. It has been a sturdy old warhorse. There wasn't a bad seat in the house and even if there are even if they were wooden, but those seats were expected to be replaced with plastic ones later this year.
If you looked hard enough, you could find some hay in the far corner or two remnants of the recent farm show. And if you smelled hard enough. you could definitely tell there was a farm show here recently.
It's game time. Actually, it turned into no match. The Heat ran roughshod over the first-place Spirit in the opening quarter, rolling to an improbable 11-3 advantage.
"We were really ready for the game," Pollihan said. "We wanted to finish 20 games at 10-10. This game was really important."
McIntosh struck for a two-point goal 5:55 into the match. In the Heat tradition McIintosh threw a mini-soccer ball into the stands to celebrate the goal. Angelo Panzetta doubled the lead on a shootout goal 2:01 later, after Baltimore's Joe Koziol connected on a power-play goal to slice the lead to 4-1 the Heat broke open the game with goals by Kelly (power play) and Tschantret and Doug Miller. The home team never looked back.
"We just wanted to get on top of them," said McIntosh, one of the offensive heroes with two goals and four assists. "They are a great team. Fortunately, we did it."
There seemed to be a rivalry brewing between the teams. Some 200 fans from Baltimore traveled 81 miles to watch the heroes go down to defeat.
With the game practically out of reach early in the fourth quarter the Heat led 19-9 juncture, an ugly scenario occurred as a major fight almost broke out at midfield.
The Heat's McIntosh and Tschantret and Spirit defender Tim Wittman and midfielder Doug Neely were sent off for "striking." McIntosh took a few swings and missed at Wittman. The players were lucky that they weren't red carded for fighting.
Instead, they each received to two-minute minor penalties. Spirit Defender Eric Dade also served a two- minute misconduct penalty.
"This it was a little petty stuff," McIntosh said. "He threw a kick at me. It's part of the game."
After the final buzzer, The Heat is on was played one more time as the team walked to the center of the field and waved to the crowd.
Then the players exited the field and entered the stands to take a victory lap around the arena while shaking hands with the fans.
"It went over well with the fans last season," said Kelly, one of the heroes with two goals and one assist. "Sometimes it's tough. Some people grab you."
Added Tschantret: "It's great for the little kids. They love it. They go nuts."
Market Street Cafe
It's a good hour after the game but the celebration continues at the Hilton Hotel in downtown Harrisburg as players from both teams and management, drink, mingle and talk with the fans.
The fans came in all ages from teenyboppers wanting to have a small chat with their heroes to season ticket holders.
"It's a great idea," Chinapoo said. "You can you have a chance to talk with the fans. You get to know them, and they get to know you."
Next: Part II: There are no days off in indoor soccer
Michael Lewis, the editor of FrontRowSoccer.com, can be followed on Twitter at @SoccerWriter. Lewis can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org His book Alive and Kicking: The incredible, but true story of the Rochester Lancers, recently was published. It can be purchased at https://tinyurl.com/2p8rzhpy.