By Michael Lewis
Beyond just being a player, Danny DiPrima has a special attachment to the Harrisburg Heat.
When the midfielder was growing up just south of the capital of Pennsylvania, DiPrima remembers going to the Farm Show Arena and watch his heroes perform, thrill and inspire.
Heroes such as Bill Becher and Gino DiFlorio, who entertained the Heat faithful every other weekend and tried to bring a National Professional Soccer League championship to the city.
“You walk into the Farm Show complex and the whole thing was sold out, 8,000 people, 10,000,” he said.
DiFlorio wound up coaching DiPrima’s youth team and the 27-year-old native of Dillsburg, Pa. wound up playing for Becher during his long tenure as the Harrisburg City Islanders’ head coach in the United Soccer League.
Today, DiPrima is with the Heat as a player in the Major Arena Soccer League.
“It was almost like a full circle move for me,” he said. “I walk in their shoes a little bit and try to bring that culture back.”
That culture was a winning one. While the Heat never won a league championship, the team won two divisional titles, usually reached the playoffs and packed the Farm Show Arena on a regular basis.
Last season the Heat hit rock-bottom, finishing last in the Eastern Division with a 6-16 mark. Under new leadership in the form of head coach and general manager Pat Healey and president Kevin Healey — a son-father combination, as it turned out — Harrisburg hopes to recapture that glory and magic of yesteryear.
It certainly won’t happen overnight.
As we all know, Rome wasn’t built in a day, but Pat Healey had a plan, detailing it when team owner Carl Delmont offered him the job.
“If I would come in, we would have to demolish everything,” said Healey, who took the position on Aug. 16. “There were some core guys that I liked. They are very good players, but the team as a whole, they weren’t a team. They were a bunch of individuals. We have only six guys from last year on the team. They had 22. That’s not ideal, what you want to do, but sometimes you’ve got to rip the band-aid off and do it and restart it.
“We’ve brought in guys with different demeanors that are team focused, team defending. It’s about the result but not about their individual stats.”
The Heat, however, did not exactly get off to a great start this season, stumbling to a 1-7 mark in its opening seven matches. Healey, however, could not help but notice that his team was in games in waning minutes, but could not get into the win column.
“Early on we were a young team with inexperienced players as a whole and we just couldn’t find ways to finish the game off,” Healey said. “We had bad fourth quarters.”
That included games against Utica City FC and the three-time defending champion Baltimore Blast.
“Right there in the fourth quarter, couldn’t out play them, couldn’t get a victory,” Healey said. “There’s struggles that every team is going to have. We’re rebuilding. We did a good job of finding guys who want to work hard and want to be here. And that’s what we’re going to build on for next year. This year is a rebuilding year. Hopefully, we’re going to get as many wins as we can. But ultimately, it’s about next year. We’re going to find more players that can fit into the system and want to play and actually going for it next year.”
One of those players who has fit into the system was veteran defender Nelson Santana, 40, who has been around the arena soccer block, playing with Syracuse Silver Knights, Ontario Fury and Baltimore Blast. Santana knew Pat Healey from Baltimore and the U.S. National Futsal Team
“He told me what he was trying to do here,” he said. “I just decided, yeah, why not? I like new challenges, new steps in my career. It’s working out. I’m happy. All the guys, we’re working hard to get better. So, I just can’t wait to play again.”
Two weeks ago Santana helped spearhead the Heat’s biggest weekend of the season as it won back-to-back games against the two top Eastern Division foes. Both just happened to be former teams for which the Colombian native had played; Utica moved from Syracuse this season.
On Friday night, Harrisburg upended second-place Utica (9-4) at home, 7-4. Ricardo Carvalho led the way with two goals as Tavoy Morgan, William Eskay, Daniel Villela, Dominic Francis and Patrick Thompson added one apiece. Santana assisted on one goal and blocked two shots. It was the Heat’s first home game since Dec. 8 after six consecutive road matches.
And on Sunday night, Santana connected for a hat-trick and blocked another shot in an 8-6 win over the Blast (7-3). Carvalho added two goals, Tom Mellor, Eskay and goalkeeper Matt Perrella (empty-netter) added goals. Perrella also made 11 saves.
“It was huge for us,” DiPrima said.
“We needed a big weekend,” said Santana, who was named MASL player of the week. “We needed a win at home. It has been a learning process.”
When asked how emotional it was for him to play so well against his former teams and teammates, Santana replied, “It’s hard for me to put it into words. I wanted the team to do good. It was a team effort. It’s not just me. Everyone stayed with the program, pretty much what Pat was setting up at every training session. Beating Utica, I played some of those guys back in the day. It was good just to win. Winning at home. playing against Baltimore, I played against Baltimore for so many years in my career. Having a hat-trick, I didn’t believe it pretty much until the end of the game or the next day. I just wanted to win. I just wanted the team to win to get on board, get everyone confident and hopefully carry it out to the rest of the season.
“It’s never over against Utica and Baltimore. We score a goal, just get back [on defense] and go from there. Playing against them, that game is never over.”
Two wins on a weekend do not make a season, but it was a start.
So does trying to lure fans back into the building on a regular basis. After attracting a reported 1,418 for Friday night’s affair, a season-high 3,027 watched Saturday’s encounter. Winning surely helps.
“Our goal is to rebuild this franchise on the field and off the field,” said Kevin Healey, who was named club president on Aug. 24 after his son was selected as coach and GM. “I am very aware of the heyday of this franchise, when they were drawing very well in the 90s. I knew the community did a good job of supporting them at that time and we’re trying to get it back to those days when we were drawing good crowds into the arena. To do that you have to get out into the community and earn the right for the people to come to your games, show the people that you’re going to be part of that community and players are going to be role models and create marketing programs that people will want to come to.”
By a quirk of the schedule, the Heat had this past weekend off before returning to action in Baltimore next Sunday, Feb. 10. The players had mixed reactions to the long time off.
“Personally, I do not like it because we are on a roll,” Santana said. “I was hoping to keep going. But hey, we can have people who are banged out to heal and next weekend try to beat Baltimore at their place.”
“It’s good and bad,” DiPrima said. “It would have been nice to keep the ball rolling after such a big weekend. But at the same time, the weekend off gives us some time to rest up and get ready for the following week and come back that much readier, that much more focused, much more driven to prove to everybody that we’re here to stay. We want to make sure we continue on the road we set this past weekend. It was definitely a tipping point for us. So hopefully we can use that momentum going forward into next week.”
DiPrima said he was fortunate to be part of the Islanders’ 2014 squad that reached the USL final and “to have that experience of what it takes to get to a championship and hearing what Pat has kind of expressed about what it takes to get over the hump and win a championship and do it multiple times, its that much more of a driving force for me individually to want to get over the hump and win a championship at the professional level.”
He would love to be a part of it.
“And it’s full circle, wanting to give something back to the Harrisburg area that people come out to games that have stuck with this franchise in some pretty dark times and to start to turn the tide a little bit and be a little bit more successful and give back to them,” he said. “That’s the ultimate goal, the ultimate drive, it is one day bring back a championship to Harrisburg. I think we have the right mentality from top to bottom to one day make that happen. It’s definitely not going to happen overnight. but that’s without a doubt an ultimate goal.”