Injury is no stranger to the American University soccer team, but the Eagles aren't planning to spend postseason in the infirmary.
One starting forward was sidelined with a compound jaw fracture and another has been hampered by a pulled hamstring. One goalkeeper is out for the duration with a broken wrist and another missed much of preseason with a fractured ankle.
Three of the team's four starting midfielders are limping with leg injuries. One fullback missed a few early games with a sprained ankle and his replacement suffers from back problems courtesy of an old ski injury.
Still, American has played so well this season that the Eagles are hoping for a postseason bid to the NCAA soccer tournament this week.
After a loss to Maryland Sept. 19 left the Eagles with a 1-2-1 start, American has been unbeaten in 13 straight games -- a school record. The team is 12-2-3 overall, rated No. 2 in the Mid-Atlantic Region, and ranked 20th nationally in the NCAA coaches' poll.
Previously, American had never won more than 10 games in a season and had broken into the top 20 only last year.
"We're starting to earn some respect now," said Coach Pete Mehlert. "If anybody's injury-plagued, it's us. If we're healthy, we can play with any team. I knew we could play well early in the season, but we weren't putting on a finish and we were giving up some high-pressure goals.
"Once we got over the Maryland game, we've been getting some breaks."
Since then, American's 11-0-2 mark has included victories over William and Mary, La Salle and then-13th ranked George Washington and ties with Temple and Howard. The latest victory came Saturday, a 1-0 win over Loyola.
Mark DeBlois, a freshman from McLeqn High who leads the team in scoring, netted his ninth goal to give AU a 1-1 tie with Howard, his 10th in a 1-0 decision over Hofstra and his 11th against Loyola.
The Hofstra victory gave the Eagles a tie with Temple for first place in the East Section of the East Coast Conference. The teams will play off Thursday in Philadelphia for a spot against Rider in the ECC title game.
Two weeks ago, midfielder Doug Dugan, a senior starter, and Bill Hylton, a top reserve, scored in a 2-0 victory over George Mason that gave American the Capital Collegiate Conference crown.
The Eagles' greatest coup could take place this week when the NCAA playoffs are handed out. Two teams from the Mid-Atlantic region will be picked. Howard is the only team ranked ahead of AU, but the Bison are ineligible for the playoffs while serving a two-year probation for using an ineligible player.
"We've had a couple of our better players get injured, and you'd think we should be losing," said Dugan, the only Eagle midfielder who has avoided a major injury. "But everyone seems to pull together and work harder. The seniors on the team really want it -- this is our last year. As we work hard, the rest of the team does, too.
"The first two years here we were the underdogs. It was all kick-and-run and not much skill involved. Now, when we're at full strength, we can play with most anybody."
This is the same American University whose soccer teams had a composite .309 winning percentage before Mehlert become head coach in 1972, and the same school whose combined athletic aid for soccer amounts to 3 1/2 full scholarships. Nobody gets full aid.
Yet Mehlert has managed to attract players like Dugan, who led Virginia AAA Northern Region high schools with 24 goals as a junior; Luis Calderon, a two-time all-South selection with definite pro protential; and Eduardo Lopez, a strong-headed back and midfielder out of T. C. Williams who transferred from William and Mary.
Of the midfielders, Calderon (groin pull), Lopez (strained knee) and Jim Piedmont (cleat wound) have all been felled at one time or another. With them, the Eagles may have limped; but without them and the likes of Dugan, American would likely fall over flat.
"The midfielders are making all the difference in the world," said keeper Bill Ruvo, himself part of a recruiting package out of Burlington County (N.Y.) College, along with reserve back Terry Schrider. "So far we've been gaining momentum and moving steadily along. Hopefully, we'll be moving higher still."
Ruvo, who fractured an ankle the second day of practice, has performed admirably in goal after junior keeper Eric Berezin broke his wrist early in the fall.
Since then Ruvo has posted an 8-0-1 record with six shutouts -- six in the last seven games -- and a goals-against average of 0.636. He was named ECC player of the week Oct. 29 after turning in back-to-back shutouts against Catholic and St. Joseph's. $"It was hard for me, having no prior experience against any of the teams we face," said Ruvo, whose major support comes from backs Charlie Davis, Tom Tague, Scott Turner and Alex Kozlov, "But Coach Mehlert prepares us well. It's almost as if he coaches the other teams, he knows so much about them."
Mehlert has had just one losing season in eight years and has winning percentage of .716 in 107 games. Saturday's win against Loyola was his 60th at the Eagle helm. Two additional wins, assuming AU earns an NCAA bid, would match up the Eagles with the winner of the Southern Region playoff -- possibly Clemson, which eliminated American, 4-0, in the first round of the NCAA last year.
By the time the playoff game rolls around, Mehlert expects most of his players to be healthy again, including striker Kevin Barth, the area's leading scorer in 1978 (11 goals), who had been sidelined recently with a hamstring pull.
"We're not sure we're in the (NCAA) playoffs yet," said Schrider, whose ski injury has limited the mobility that made him a junior college All-America. "We're got to keep playing the way we have until it's official. We're confident, but not cocky. We sure won't be casual about this."