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His Rookie Season Is Bittersweet : Splash: Former Titan McDonnell has scored, and scored points with his coach, but the bottom line is winning the game.

August 25, 1994|MARTIN HENDERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ANAHEIM — Paul McDonnell's 23rd birthday was filled with great personal disappointment as well as great personal revelation.

"It was a bad birthday," he said, "because we didn't win . . ."

McDonnell scored three goals on July 24, but the Splash lost to the Sockers in San Diego in a first-place showdown. And McDonnell, as a rookie professional playing indoor soccer for the first time, had already learned the bottom line from his more experienced teammates.

The bottom line is winning.

Except on this day, the bottom line was marked by an asterisk.

"I scored a hat trick away from home against one of the top teams in the league," McDonnell said. "I walked away with a sense that I do belong in this league, I can be successful, I can reach the next level with a couple of years of experience. I think that's where I got some respect from San Diego and other teams in the league."

It is a respect earned through hard work by the former Cal State Fullerton captain, who was a driving force behind the Titans' run to the 1993 NCAA final four.

"He's definitely one of the best rookies in this league," Splash Coach George Fernandez said. "He plays tough defense, he can go forward and he has scored some goals. He's done an outstanding job for a rookie. A lot of people only hear about Armando (Valdivia), but they're running 1-2, no doubt about it."

Valdivia may be a front-runner for rookie of the year, but McDonnell--from his position as a defender--has done some important things, too. He has scored nine goals and had seven assists and 22 blocks. He's averaging a goal about every fourth shot.

His style also has scored points with Fernandez, who sees something special in the 5-foot-11, 175-pound British citizen.

"I love the kid because he works so hard for me; he has a great time and has a great attitude," said Fernandez, a former defender who is in his first year of coaching. "I probably try to help him more than any other player because, from the beginning, he came in here as a nobody, worked very hard, . . . didn't moan and didn't cry. He didn't question the things I told him. He listened very well.

"Right from the beginning I knew this kid was a special kid. Maybe it's unfair to the other young players--I try to give equal time--but I've tried to do a lot for Paul because I feel he has warranted it. He's done everything I could ask from a kid. I'm not saying everybody else hasn't, but he's been great from the beginning."

In short, Fernandez looks at McDonnell and sees himself. Fernandez emerged from an open Sockers' tryout and eventually became an all-star.

But Fernandez isn't the only player who has taken McDonnell under his wing. Ralph Black, the team's most veteran player who plays alongside McDonnell, also has a special interest in his development.

"He works his butt off and he listens, and I see him getting a lot better if he sticks with the indoor game," said Black, who got the same kind of help as an 18-year-old professional. "He's a good find. He's got the overall package if he keeps his head."

McDonnell said Dale Ervine and Doug Neely also have been quick to provide advice.

"Help is always there if you want it," McDonnell said. "It's like having four or five coaches."

All that help will be put to the test Sunday when the Splash (17-6) plays host to Sacramento (13-11). Black and another starting defender, Denis Hamlett, will miss that game because of suspensions for their roles in a bench-clearing brawl on Aug. 14--also against Sacramento.

That leaves McDonnell and Neely as the only two starters in back. Neely had been playing midfield in the absence of the injured Valdivia, who may--or may not--be ready for Sacramento.

"(McDonnell's) going to have to step up his game," Fernandez said. "It's going to be a lot of pressure on him. He's proved it game in and game out that he's more than capable of making the right decisions most of the time. We have three veterans in back so that gives me the time and space to put him in that position while he's learning."

It's all part of the growing process of becoming a professional, which has been an eye-opening experience. The arena, the crowds, the travel, the autograph seekers, all of it has awed McDonnell. But he looks, listens and learns, all the time.

"The biggest thing is that you learn how to conduct yourself on the field and off," McDonnell said. "Even though it's not a major sport, you are in the limelight and some kids do look up to you and you have to conduct yourself appropriately so you give the club, as well as yourself, a good name."

And a good bottom line.

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