After a fall in which the UMBC men’s soccer team won its first America East Conference regular-season title since 2003 and its third conference tournament championship in the past four years, the program seemed poised to make a serious run in the postseason.
But the No. 16-seed Retrievers (16-1-3) were bounced from the second round of the NCAA tournament as Connecticut prevailed, 4-2, in a penalty-kick shootout Sunday night at Retriever Soccer Park in Catonsville. The sudden exit, after a 2-2 tie in regulation, is still difficult for UMBC to absorb.
“In my office today, there were 10 players, and it was almost like a wake,” coach Pete Caringi Jr. said Tuesday evening. “We watched the game, and I got a really empty feeling in my stomach. All that we accomplished this year, after watching that game again from Sunday, I really believe that we’re one of the best teams in the country because all year long, we proved it. There are always going to be critics, but this team played a great style, and if you look at the tape from Sunday against one of the top teams in the country, we played really well. … I think in other years, I would’ve been excited to get to the second round of the NCAA tournament, but I’m left with an empty feeling because I think this team could have continued to play and done some damage in the national tournament.”
Caringi wouldn’t say whether this year’s squad was the best he had ever coached. The 1999 team set a school record for wins in a single season (19), won a conference championship and earned the program’s first appearance in the NCAA tournament. The 2012 squad went 11-4-7 and reached the second round of the tournament before falling to North Carolina in a penalty-kick shootout.
But Caringi said there was much to appreciate and enjoy about this year’s team.
“You’d be fortunate to be a coach for a long time like me, to have a group of players like this,” he said. “Every game, they went out and played as hard as they could and got phenomenal results. But as good of a season as it was, I think we all came away with a bad taste in our mouth only because we played so well on Sunday, and to come up short in penalty kicks, you win on penalty kicks and you lose on penalty kicks. It’s a tough way to lose the game. I think there’s still as little bad taste in the seeding, but you can’t take away from the performance and the success that we had. I just think it was one of those rare years that you have. The one word to describe it is special.”
Next fall’s team will be a vastly different one. Gone will be three senior starters in forward Pete Caringi III, who is tied for eighth in Division I in goals with 13; midfielder Kadeem Dacres, who ranked second on the team in goals (seven) and points (18); and goalkeeper Phil Saunders, who posted a .776 save percentage, a 0.70 goals-against average and seven shutouts. Senior back Travis Dennis played in 18 games, starting five.
But the Retrievers do return eight starters, and Caringi said that team could be just as successful.
“I think the expectations will be high for next year’s group,” he said. “There are a lot of returning starters. The beauty of this year was that they understood that from the very beginning. They were picked to win the America East Conference and they had a target on their back from day one in every game, and they accepted the challenge. I think going into next year, our expectations and goals are always going to be the same. We want to do well in the America East and we want to win the America East championship, because that guarantees you a spot in the NCAA tournament. If we get into the NCAA tournament, we obviously want to go one step further — if not more — than we did this year. The goals will be lofty, but I think that’s the challenge and beauty of being a coach and a player.”