The final four teams of the Division I Men’s College Cup are prepped up and ready to go at it this Friday from Cary, North Carolina. The first match, set for 5 p.m. ET, is the classic tale of David and Goliath.
Enter the Cinderella UMBC Retrievers. The America East Champions are the first unseeded team to appear in the College Cup since Massachusetts achieved the feat in 2007. The three-time America East champions aren’t satisfied just yet, however.
“It’s a great accomplishment,” coach Pete Caringi, Jr. said. “Not being ranked has come together to drive us to succeed and prove ourselves. We have a Baltimore “chip” on our shoulders where we are out there every game to prove how good we really are.”And good they indeed are. Caringi and his 2014 America East Coaching Staff of the Year have helped lead the Retrievers through the 2014 post season without allowing a goal to the opposition. In fact, you have to go back 788 postseason minutes to a 2010 game against Princeton for the last regulation goal they allowed. A large part of that is due to the solid performance of redshirt sophomore Billy Heavner. Heavner took over midseason and put together a 12-1-2 record in that span.
“I think he is incredibly composed, very calm,” Caringi explained. “He has an air about him when he walks on the field that he’s going to get the job done, and the guys feed off of that. And anytime you see a hot goalkeeper in any sport the guys are extremely confident in him, and right now we are with Billy. He doesn’t seemed fazed by anything.”
Heavner is not alone, of course, as the Retrievers have a very senior-heavy team. The clamp-down defense is led by America East Defender of the Year Oumar Ballo. He is joined by AE Midfielder of the Year Mamadou Kansaye and Striker of the Year Kay Banjo. Senior defenders Jordan Becker and Marquez Fernandez were also stout as they both made the AE second team.
“They have seen the big picture the entire season. It’s all about the team and being successful.” Caringi commented on his seniors. “To the credit of these guys, it has always been about the team and never about themselves. I think this says a lot about the character about these guys and how important winning is for them and not personal achievement.”
They are going to have to rely on the focus of their senior leadership as the Retrievers face a perennial postseason stalwarts in Virginia. The Cavaliers enter the postseason for the 34th consecutive season, the longest such streak in the NCAA. They have 12 College Cup appearances, good for fifth most all time. They also took home the Cup every year from 1991 to '94 and then again in 2009. To say they understand the magnitude of this weekend is an understatement.This was a different Cavaliers team than usual. Just last season, they were in the College Cup once again, but this year, they were decimated early on by injuries and really had to fight to get where they are.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve had a team that has that belief,” two-time ACC Coach of the Year George Gelnovatch said. “We may not be the most talented College Cup group that I’ve had, but in terms of the will to win, this is one of my best and it goes a long way. We’re going to carry that forward.”
Virginia had what Gelnovatch called an “emotional” run to the College Cup. The Cavaliers finally overcame a Notre Dame team they fell to twice this season in a stunning 1-0 victory, sending the No. 1 seed home in the third round. They then upset the No. 8 seeded Georgetown Hoyas in a thrilling quarterfinal on penalty kicks, but Gelnovatch knows they aren’t alone.
“UMBC has had a tough road, too. A really impressive run,” Gelnovatch said. “We are two similar teams in there is not a lot of goals being scored, pretty organized defensively, finding ways to win. It will be who’s will is a little bit stronger.”
The Cavs are led by junior Todd Wharton, a midfielder who made third team All-ACC and senior midfielder Eric Bird. Bird was All-ACC first team and led the Cavs in points this season. But Bird has been dealing with injuries. He returned to practice Tuesday, which could benefit the Cavs greatly.
“It would be huge,” Gelnovatch commented on Bird’s return. “He’s one of our best players. Just having him out there today -- it was extra energy on the field.”
So who will rise triumphant on Friday evening and advance to Sunday's championship game?
“It is going to be another tough challenge,” UMBC Caringi said. “It will be a great game. I think from an offensive standpoint we both like to go forward, but we are both this far in the tournament because of how well we are defending. It should be an interesting game of how well we matchup.”