Tuesday, February 20, 2018
Sports

Rowdies hope to keep up staying power in NASL playoffs

Fifteen minutes after the close of practice, Rowdies coach Ricky Hill stood on the sideline of the team's Shimberg Complex practice field answering questions with a soccer ball under his right arm and a matter-of-fact tone in his voice.

In the background, a handful of players gathered near the midfield stripe to start another round in an endless skill competition to see who could peg the crossbar in the air on a goal 55 yards away.

Another group of players good-naturedly ribbed each other about badly missed shots on goal as they camped out under the shade of a pavilion. Nearby, captain Frankie Sanfilippo received a post-practice rub down from head trainer Jim Faylo while forward Daniel Antoniuk filled a large plastic trash can with ice and water for a makeshift cold tub.

After practice ended, there was no mad dash to the parking lot. Every car sat idle in the baking sun.

Hill on Thursday was named the NASL coach of the year, the third time he has been honored for his acumen. He won the American Professional Soccer League's award as a player-coach for the Rowdies in 1992, and 11 years later he was coach of the year after winning three of four domestic trophies with CL Financial San Juan Jabloteh in the Trinidad and Tobago Professional Football League.

Perhaps more than anything, Hill's ability to foster a competitive, entertaining and enjoyable environment while leading the Rowdies to a second-place regular-season finish is the No. 1 reason he was named the NASL's best coach in his second season with the team.

"That's the great thing about Coach, he always keeps us grounded," Sanfilippo said.

The Rowdies tonight begin a two-match playoff semifinal round against Carolina, and they do it as arguably the league's most consistent team. They are unbeaten in their past six matches. Since mid June, the Rowdies have lost twice.

The start of the season, however, wasn't smooth. Through 13 games, the team had lost six times. Hill was perturbed. Before the match June 16 at Minnesota, he voiced his concerns to the team in a pregame airing-out session.

"I said to them, 'Fellas, I really believe we're better than that, than what we've done so far, and I'm going to put the gauntlet down now. This is it. It's laid down. We don't lose. If we don't win, then we don't lose, because we need to get into that winning mentality,' " Hill said. "And that's what we've been playing from that moment, we've been playing with that drive not to lose."

The Rowdies, in fifth place in the eight-team league at the time, defeated the Stars 2-1 that day, kick starting a string of seven wins in eight games.

The Rowdies' second-place finish in the league put them only two points behind first-place San Antonio.

"I think that Minnesota game was the turning point for us," Sanfilippo said.

Carolina presents a difficult challenge. The RailHawks are the only team the Rowdies didn't beat in the regular season. All four matches ended in draws.

Overall, Tampa Bay is 1-5-4 against Carolina since the Rowdies' re-emergence in 2010, the lone victory coming in the teams' first meeting that inaugural season.

But for the Rowdies, the opponent matters little, as long as the team can continue playing the style it has shown since Hill's motivational rally.

"We're on a good note right now. We haven't lost in the last six games," Sanfilippo said. "We're up to the challenge to play anybody."

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