Oct. 5, 2009

NCAA.com Men's Soccer Blog

By Kevin Scheitrum

Last Saturday, half a thousand University of Vermont undergrads spent their Saturday storming a field to celebrate their Catamounts’ win over the team picked to finish dead last in its conference.

For 90 minutes, Vermont had out-muscled and generally out-worked the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, picking up a 3-1 win over a club that the America East coaches had estimated to take eighth – out of eight teams – in the conference preseason poll. And, more pertinently, a UMBC team that hadn’t lost as of Saturday, playing to a 9-0-0 clip and ascending to No. 18 in the NSCAA poll.

“We went from being ranked last in the conference to playing in Vermont and it being like the national championship,” said UMBC coach Pete Caringi. “Our players took it as a wake-up call – we went from being the hunter to the hunted.”

The first month or so of every NCAA season always brings with it a certain bit of vandalism, as teams set fire to preseason polls. But few clubs – maybe only Monmouth, now standing at its highest-ever ranking – have managed to burn as brightly as the gang of teenagers playing soccer in Baltimore County.

They are, after all, largely teenagers. Seven seniors graduated from last year’s squad, replaced by a swarm of freshmen and only one rising senior, defender Andrew Gillis – and he’d missed most of last season with a foot injury. When UMBC played up in Burlington on Saturday, there were six freshmen on the field.

But they’re teenagers that can play. Very well. The Retrievers currently boast the nation’s third-best scoring offense (2.80 goals per game) and two of the country’s top three players in points per game (Andrew Bulls, first at 3.10 a contest, and Levi Houapeu, third at 2.40). In addition to plowing through teams at a clip of almost three goals a game – the Retriever have been held to less than three goals in only four of 10 games this year – they’ve also posted shutouts in five games this year.

With, of course, a freshman, Phil Saunders, in goal.

“You’re talking about a team that, five weeks ago, they were introducing themselves to each other,” Caringi said. “And five weeks later they’re looking in the paper and seeing they’re nationally ranked.”

It took until last week for UMBC to crack the NSCAA poll, after a month of domination outside of it. And these weren’t walk-in-walk-off wins. The Retrievers opened with a 3-1 win over Virginia Tech, a team that last week knocked off then-No. 16 N.C. State and before took down Clemson, a team that beat Virginia a week prior.

Then came 11 goals in two games, a 5-1 win over Delaware and 6-0 win over St. Joseph’s in the Anders Soccer Classic. Five games (and five wins) later, UMBC took down cross-town rival Loyola, 1-0 on Sept. 22, for the Retrievers’ first-ever win over the Greyhounds at home.

That win pushed the season-opening win streak to eight games, the best start the program’s ever had since moving to Div. I. Another win, a 3-0 bashing of Drexel, on Sept. 26 pushed the mark to 9-0-0.

Last year, UMBC started at 5-2-2. The Retrievers won only once after that, dropping seven of eight and failing to even make the America East Tournament five years after claiming the regular season crown in the team’s first year in the conference.

“Last year there were a lot of seniors, and we had a lot of high expectations, and quite frankly I think the team took a lot of things for granted,” Caringi said. “We were always thinking that the next game will be better. It was one of those where everything that could have happened, happened. People got injured, and then we had New Hampshire down 1-0 with five minutes left, and if we win, we’re in the playoffs, and we wind up losing.”

But an offseason of renewed focus and drive, coupled with a roster composed of 64 percent underclassmen (eight freshmen and six sophomores on a team of 22) has meant nothing gets taken for granted. Nothing, because, well, most of the team has no idea what to expect.

Until Saturday, eight players had never experienced a loss while playing college soccer (UMBC won both of its preseason games, too). And until Saturday, eight players had never endured the grinding ordeal of a conference road trip.

As the Southernmost of any America East school – the majority of the conference is scattered around New England and New York – a trip to Vermont means an early flight to New Hampshire, then a series of vans for a few hours to Burlington. Now add the physicality of play in a league that jumped to sixth in the NCAA conference rankings last year – the America East’s highest-ever mark – and the task of staying unbeaten gets even harder.

But, Caringi said, the game offered a wave of perspective for the young team. About what it means to win in-conference. Just as importantly, as they watched Vermont fans pour onto the field, about what it means to be a marked team after starting the season as an afterthought.

“We just had a lot of fun [early],” Caringi said. “It’s been a great year, and I think the last week or so, the senior guys were getting a lot tighter, seeing the papers, seeing the write-ups, obviously it went from a carefree 4-0, 5-0 team to 9-0 team, and people on campus started talking about going undefeated, talking crazy stuff, and it got to some people’s heads, which is human nature.”

But, Caringi said, the excitement, ingested the right way, can be a great thing.

“We had four newspaper articles on the soccer team last week, and the response from the students, they caught on to the excitement of the team,” he said. “I’ve been here 19 years, born and raised, and I’ve never seen anything like this.”