Segota, Sockers Awaken

TIMES STAFF WRITER

For weeks, the questions have hit him like slaps in face, one after another.

What's wrong? Why aren't you shooting more? Why aren't you scoring?

Branko Segota has been unable to deliver any answers; what's more, he has been unable to deliver many goals. Coach Ron Newman would defend him, telling everyone that Segota was doing other things to help the Sockers.

But who was kidding whom? What Branko Segota does best is score goals that widen people's eyes. And he hasn't done much of that in these MISL playoffs.

That changed Thursday.

The Sockers defeated the Baltimore Blast, 4-3, to even the best-of-seven championship series, 1-1, before 6,552 in Baltimore Arena. Credit can certainly be given to forward Rod Castro, who took a pass from Paul Wright midway through the fourth quarter, spun around forward Carl Valentine and sent the ball into the left corner to tie it at 2-2.

This was also a consistent team effort by the Sockers, who stayed patient and kept running and yelling at each other until the job was finished.

But mainly, it was a night when the clock turned back to last year or the year before or, really, any previous year in Segota's nine-year career.

It happened this way:

With just more than three minutes to play and the score tied, Segota took a pass from midfielder Brian Quinn and put his left foot on the ball. His back was to the goal. Defender Bruce Savage stood about an inch behind him.

A second or two ticked off the clock, and then Segota shoved the ball a few feet to his right, turned and drilled a 15-footer past goalie Scott Manning. Savage could only watch while lying on his back.

When Segota scored, both teams had a man in the penalty box. Blast forward Peter Ward had been called for tripping, and 35 seconds later, Socker goalie Zoltan Toth was called for holding. The Sockers managed to kill the remainder of the power play after Segota's goal with Blast midfielder Billy Ronson serving as the sixth attacker.

Then, with 49 seconds left, Quinn swerved around Ronson to put in an insurance goal. Blast forward Domenic Mobilio scored with four seconds to play on a ball that deflected into the net off the foot of defender Ralph Black. The Sockers killed the final seconds on the kickoff and now will have a more relaxed trip back to San Diego, site of the next three games.

The goal and victory were therapeutic for Segota, who has had his fill of a slump in which he has scored just three goals in the first 10 playoff games.

"We know what's been going on," Segota said. "I wasn't playing well. I wasn't hiding it. Everybody goes through that. My concentration wasn't there."

The leading playoff scorer in Sockers' history was even hearing a few boos.

"People forget so easily," he said. "One day they love you, the next day they hate you. I'm not finished by far. I've got a lot of championships in me yet."

All this was encouraging to Segota's teammates.

"That killer look is back in his eyes," defender Kevin Crow said. "You can tell by his step."

If Segota can contribute for the remainder of the series the way he did Thursday, Baltimore will have its hands full. Up to now, Quinn has been playing with much of the team riding on his back. He has 20 post-season points, compared to Segota's eight.

"Branko is a special player," Quinn said. "I expect him to score every game. When he decides to play, it makes it so much easier for every one of us."

Baltimore did a good job of making things easier for the Sockers Thursday, settling into a defensive style and shunning opportunities to push the ball forward after taking a 2-1 lead on Mobilio's goal 2:32 into the third quarter. The teams were even, 1-1, at halftime after power-play goals by Blast midfielder Tim Wittman and Socker midfielder Waad Hirmez.

Just before Segota's goal, while the Sockers were on the power play, Toth came out of the box to challenge Wittman on the left boards. There was a collision, and when Toth got up, he saw the referee waving a blue card. He thought to himself: "Great, now we have a five-three advantage."

But the call was on him.

"He jumped on my back," Toth said. "So I'm going to lift him off. As I'm lifting him off, I saw the blue card. I never touched him, but he fell on my neck."

Soon after, Segota made everything all right. Remember, this is how last year's series also started, the Sockers losing the opener after leading and then winning Game 2 by a single goal. The Sockers accomplished what they set out to do in Baltimore.

"Now it's up to us," Hirmez said. "We're going home. We've just got to play smart soccer."

Baltimore Coach Kenny Cooper thinks his team has a better idea about how to handle this loss than they did a year ago.

"It was a different feeling in the locker room than when we lost last year in Game 2," Cooper said. "Last year, we were perplexed. I came into the locker room tonight, and they were fine. I just guarantee we'll bring the series back to Baltimore."

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