The Kixx failed to make the playoffs last season after making postseason appearances in each of their first 9 years in the Major Indoor Soccer League.

Now, the team is back in the playoffs and the players are back with a vengeance.

Any doubts about the Kixx were answered after a semifinal-round upset over the Chicago Storm. What added to the victory was that the Kixx, after losing the first game in Chicago, were able to pull out the win at the Wachovia Spectrum, a place where the Storm had been undefeated this year. That tied the series 1-1, so immediately after the game a sudden-death minigame, known as a Golden Goal, was held. The Kixx scored first to advance to the title game for the first time since winning the championship in 2002.

The championship will be in Plymouth, Mich., where the Kixx, who finished third in the league, will duke it out with the first-place Detroit Ignition in a single-elimination game, tomorrow at 4 p.m.

John Barry Nusum is a big reason the Kixx are in the title game. The third-year forward scored the game-winner in the Golden Goal. He also had the game-winning assist in Game 2, which forced the extra stanza.

"It's a new season," Nusum said about the playoffs. "This is us starting all over. If you lose one game, you can be out. I could have probably done more in [the loss in Chicago]. I just hate losing."

The team has not played since winning on Saturday, but one would expect their practices have been extreme in preparation for tomorrow.

Not according to Nusum.

"We're a very relaxed team," he said. "Practice hasn't changed."

Head coach and leading scorer Don D'Ambra explained what his goals have been at recent practices.

"I try not to overload the team," he said. "We just need to sharpen up on things.

"We have to familiarize ourselves with [Detroit's] strengths and weaknesses."

If Nusum's "new season" theory holds true, the Ignition's regular-season 18-12 record can be thrown out, along with the Kixx' 17-13.

Yet there's still the fact that the two teams have played six times, including five tight games, none of which was decided by more than two points. The other game? That was a 22-12 loss the Kixx would prefer to forget.

And Philadelphia knows about winning on the road.

The Kixx, at 9-6 the best road team in the league, won two of three in Detroit. And they'll have to steal one more for a title.

"We have shown we can win there," D'Ambra said. "But any time the home team gets momentum, the crowd gets behind them.

"We're expecting this to come down to the last minute of play. We have to prepare for a tough, hard-fought battle."

There's no reason for D'Ambra not to expect a close one. The teams played in two overtime thrillers already this year.

This one just matters more.

"We don't get a second chance," Nusum said. "I'm focused on going to Detroit and getting the win.

"Everyone's real hungry right now. The younger guys hear the older guys talk about the feeling of winning, and that just makes us [younger guys] hungrier.

"It's only one game. Anything can happen any given night. Hopefully we can bring home the championship.

"I'm ready to win . . . ready to celebrate." *