The UMBC women's soccer team’s path from worst to first in the America East is exactly what Leslie Wray envisioned when she was hired by the university in January 2012. But even the coach admitted that she was surprised at the speed at which the players and coaches were able to revitalize a program that went from 1-11-5 last year to 11-5-2 this fall.
"Surreal is the right word," Wray said Monday morning. "It has been just absolutely amazing. I'm so proud of the players and the effort they put into this game. It's just really been a collaborative effort on everybody's part. Between the coaching staff and the seniors and bringing the freshmen in, everyone has worked hard.
"They might not say that they're surprised, but we always find a way to win. Last year, we lost a lot of one-goal games. This year, we're on the other side of it, and it feels wonderful and it feels rewarding that our hard work has paid off."
With a 6-2-0 record in the America East, the Retrievers completed the best turnaround in conference history by becoming the first team to earn the No. 1 seed after finishing in last place the previous season. Along with Stony Brook (11-5-1 overall and 6-2-0 in the America East), UMBC captured a share of the regular-season championship – the school’s first league crown.
Wray said the turning point of the fall occurred just as the team was transitioning from its non-conference schedule to the league portion of its schedule.
"[A]t that point, I was like, 'You know what, this team keeps fighting and keeps responding,'" Wray said, referring to the Retrievers' 5-2-2 start. "We were doing things right and we were scoring goals. So I think at that point, we had a lot of confidence going into conference play and even with two losses – a loss prior to our conference and losing our first conference game – we were responsive. We knew we could score.”
UMBC will try to parlay its first regular-season title into its first tournament championship. As the top seed, the Retrievers will be under the microscope, but Wray said it's a challenge that the team doesn't shirk.
"That's our goal," she said. "I don't want to look too far ahead. … I think we can say that we've had a successful season so far, but not as successful as we want. That's going to be our ultimate goal, winning the tournament championship."