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TEAM HOPES TO ADVANCE BEYOND EXTREME MEDIOCRITY

The Buffalo Blizzard begins its National Professional Soccer League season Saturday night with two new coaches, a bunch of new players, new team colors, and a new marketing slogan titled "Extreme Soccer: It's Your Turf".

The team and its fans hope the combo will also produce extreme change in the same old story.

Over five campaigns, the Blizzard has become the epitome of mediocrity: a ".500" team that always makes the playoffs but never wins a postseason series.

Although the North Division championship banner won on the last night of the season by last year's 21-19 club will be raised at Marine Midland Arena (7:30 p.m., Empire, Radio 107.7), there won't be a lot of fond reminiscing among the veterans who have traded their black, blue and purple uniforms for the new royal blue and white.

Actually -- because of injuries, cuts and other departures -- there will be fewer than a handful of Buffalo players on the floor from the tumultuous 1996-97 season.

New coach Carlos Salguero plans to submit a 16-man opening-game roster that will include only four players -- Rudy and Randy Pikuzinski, Andrew Crawford and Andrew "Yogi" McKay -- who suited up for the Blizzard's last game, a 13-11 playoff loss to Kansas City, the eventual champ.

Three other veterans -- high-scoring forward Doug Miller and defenders Marco Rizi and David Banks -- are expected to return in a few weeks. Miller and Rizi are injured. Banks is still playing with a summer team.

Prominent departed veterans include forward Gino DiFlorio (now with the Cincinnati Silverbacks), forward Mauro Biello (with the Montreal Impact, the Blizzard's opening-night opponent), defenders Rene Rivas and Fuseini Dauda (now playing abroad) and goalkeeper Pat Harrington (injured during the summer.) Most notable among the new faces are goalie Bill Andracki and defenders Jeff Popp and Bobby DiNunzio.

Andracki is a five-year NPSL veteran who played with the Philadelphia Kixx last season. Earlier he was Otto Orf's backup with the Cleveland Crunch for three years and then played a season with the expansion Tampa Bay Terror.

Popp, who has played nine years in the league, was acquired from the Milwaukee Wave. DiNunzio, a Buffalo native, spent three seasons of his 10 NPSL seasons with the Blizzard before being released as a free agent before last season.

General manager Jim May said he "definitely" expects to make "a few more changes" soon.

"We're not there yet," May said. "With the situation the way it is in soccer with guys playing in other leagues, we still have players coming. . . . I think we're still a few guys short. I think we will see some additions."

Salguero, the fifth coach in franchise history (sixth if you double-count May's two stints), led the team to a 4-0 preseason and, naturally, hopes the momentum continues.

"Everybody knows preseason doesn't mean anything. But my way, I like to win even in practice," he said.

"So I think it's a good sign. It's a good start for the younger kids. It gets them used to winning games and it gives them confidence to start the season."

Asked about team goals, Salguero joked that "30 and 10 would be nice," but added that, realistically, "first, I think we've got to get to .500. That is the most important one. Then after .500, we've got to get to the next level."

"We're a .500 team for our existence," added forward and new assistant coach Rudy Pikuzinski.

"The first year the Blizzard was in existence was our best (23-17) year. We're trying to go for that record and even better."

BLIZZARD ROSTER
No. Player Pos.GAPts.
2 Jeff Popp ....D4 4 13
4 Marco Rizi ....D175 46
5 Chris Fox ....D1 0 2
6 Mike Kirmse ....M0 0 0
7 Evan Whitson ....F0 0 0
9 Andrew McKay ....D7 4 20
10 Lalo Maradona ....F121136
11 Ryan Levesque ....F0 0 0
13 And. Crawford ....F462299
14 Alex Villalobos ....M0 0 0
18 Ra. Pikuzinski ....M214990
20 Alfredo Chirillo ....F0 0 0
23 Rudy Pikuzinski ....F3829100
24 Billy Reinhardt ....F000
93 Bobby DiNunzio ....D000
Goalkeepers WLPAA
1 Bill Andracki.... 2 7 18.53
12 Steve Quinones.... 0 1 17.22
F-Forward; D-Defender; M-Midfielder. G-Goals; A-Assists; Pts-Points; PAA-Points-against average (in NPSL last year).

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