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Linhart the Lion-Hearted : Northridge Soccer Stalwart Does What He Must to Blunt the Attack

October 12, 1994|MIKE HISERMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NORTHRIDGE — Ross Linhart was startled by the outburst, then mildly amused.

Marwan Ass'ad, the excitable and demonstrative coach of the Cal State Northridge soccer team, was verbally accelerating, shifting gears between measured scold and theatrical tirade.

Moments earlier, a University of San Diego player had scored a goal against the Matadors, prompting Ass'ad to broadcast--dramatically--the errors of Linhart's ways.

It wasn't until Ass'ad finally paused to take a breath that Linhart managed to sneak a couple of words in edgewise.

"Wasn't me," he said coolly.

"What?" screeched Ass'ad.

"Wasn't me," Linhart repeated, dabbing at blood trailing from a two-inch gash between his eyes. "(The referee) made me come out because of this and they scored 30 seconds after I left the field."

The coach should have known. Bad things usually don't happen to Northridge when Linhart is patrolling on defense.

Consider the Matadors' record last season: 11 wins and two losses with Linhart in the lineup; one win and seven losses while he was recovering from various injuries.

A coincidence? Ass'ad doesn't think so. "The record speaks for itself," he said. "Ross is the best. He makes everybody around him play better."

Linhart, who, depending on one's terminology of choice, plays either fullback, sweeper or defender, is Northridge's last line of defense before its goalkeeper.

Let it never be said he plays "matador"--as in Ole!-- defense. Rather, compare him to a Secret Service agent who might sacrifice his body to take a bullet, or an elite soldier who would throw himself on top of a live grenade.

"He's not afraid of anybody," Ass'ad said. "He does whatever it takes to tackle the ball."

Hence Linhart's personal motto: "Get the ball or get the man, but don't miss both."

Linhart protects the Northridge goal as if his life depended on it, often risking substantial injury to his rather ordinary 5-foot-10, 155-pound frame.

"We call it the Linhart Rage," Ass'ad said. "When it comes to game-time he hates people. They're the enemy. That's the only way he knows how to play."

Dare challenge him and even teammates become targets.

"Before we do, say, a 4-on-4 drill in practice, I'll say to him, 'Hey, this is meant to develop skill, quickness and balance, so don't kill anybody,' Ass'ad said.

" 'OK, coach.' "But then someone will win the ball from him and that's it. He's the enemy."

Matt Davis, who, as a forward, often duels with Linhart during practice, said his teammate's aggressiveness initially angered him.

"But that was before I understood Ross," he said. "He is the most intense person on the team, without a doubt."

Linhart, a junior, came to Northridge after an injury-riddled career at Wilson High in Hacienda Heights, "a no-name soccer school in a no-name city," he said.

Knowing only that Linhart had been a good enough youth player to take part in a U.S. Olympic Development program, Ass'ad didn't offer him a scholarship.

'We couldn't afford to take a chance on a guy I hadn't seen play," the coach said.

Linhart enrolled at Northridge anyway, trying out for the team as a walk-on. What a steal. He started all 18 games in his freshman season and has been on scholarship ever since. He has started every match for which he's been healthy and eligible.

Ass'ad already is convinced that Linhart has a future in professional soccer, assuming at some point he adopts an off-season training ethic that matches the ferocious effort he puts forth during the season.

"If Ross was 170, 175 pounds he would kill people," Ass'ad said. "He needs to lift weights, take care of his body."

As it is, Linhart usually is nursing some sort of gash, scrape, bruise or muscle pull.

"His body just can't keep up with his game," Ass'ad said. "He has such desire. He takes things personal, man, and to be great on defense, that's how you have to be."

Defense is all Linhart has played since age 12, when he successfully completed an assignment to "mark" the star scorer on an opposing youth team in a championship match.

Not scoring doesn't bother him. "I take pride in team," he said. "I don't mind not getting glory as long as we win."

Nor does he seem to mind getting gory.

Linhart, 20, is studying biological psychology, a field he describes as "understanding how injuries to the body can have a psychological effect on the mind."

Standing near the Northridge soccer field before a recent practice, Linhart appears qualified to conduct his own study. In addition to the gash on his forehead, he has scrapes on both knees and a lacerated left hip.

A teammate says Linhart "is pretty loony. A lot of people think he's a little crazy, not playing with a full deck, you know?"

That's one of his best attributes.

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