UMBC soccer coach Pete Caringi Jr. looks to top last year's successful run

UMBC soccer coach Pete Caringi Jr. looks to top last year's successful run

The blue team was up two goals on the red side as another day at Pete Caringi Jr.'s All-Maryland Soccer Camp was coming to a close earlier this summer.

It's the 33rd year the longtime UMBC coach has conducted the youth camps, but nobody could tell.

He jumped onto the field to provide some animated play by play as he counted down the game's final minutes. Then, appointing himself to the red team, he parked in front of the blue net and — just like his playing days as a two-time All-American at the University of Baltimore — buried a shot that cut the lead in half.

"The old man still got it!" a young camper quipped.

With the first practice Wednesday as he enters his 25th season at UMBC, Caringi aims to prove he still has it after the Retrievers' run to the NCAA's College Cup last year — soccer's version of the Final Four. In getting there, they didn't concede a goal in knocking off powerhouses Wake Forest, Maryland, Louisville and Creighton with each playoff win coming on the road. Eventual champion Virginia finally stopped them, 1-0, in the semifinals.

Caringi was named 2014 National Soccer Coaches Association of America Division I Coach of the Year, which he calls a team honor. The 60-year-old Highlandtown native said the season has helped get the program more recognition with potential recruits now knowing where the school is located and what the letters in UMBC stand for.

During the season-long grind, Caringi's satisfaction didn't go unnoticed.

"I don't know if words could describe the look he had on his face every day he came out for training — it's never like another day at the job," said last year's star defender Oumar Ballo, an Archbishop Curley grad who was drafted by the Houston Dynamo of Major League Soccer. "He was so happy to be there and when we continued on our run, you could see his expression grow on his face. He was just happy all the way around — happy for the team, happy for the staff and happy for himself. It was just cheerful and there wasn't any words to describe it."

Caringi, who has won 260 games, is as competitive as they come. The championships are important to him — the Retrievers have won three straight America East Conference tournament titles, four of the past five, while also claiming the past two regular season crowns.

But the biggest pleasure he gets is the relationships he develops with his players and coaching staff. Most of his players have been by design homegrown talent. Of the eight seniors on last year's team, half were standout high school players from the Baltimore area and the others were all from Maryland.

"One of the things I've always told my players is this is more than you just coming to play for me and then it's over and thanks and I don't know what happens after," Caringi said. "It's not going to happen with every kid, but you have kids that you stay in touch with. To me, I think that's more rewarding than saying I've won championships but have no relationships with the guys. I've always cherished that part of it more than anything because you're involved with these guys decades later."

Giuliano Celenza, one of the finest players to come out of Highlandtown, can attest. He said two of his best years (1999 and 2000) came when he played for Caringi at UMBC. Celenza, who went on to play professionally with the Baltimore Blast, still calls his former coach frequently. One of his latest came when he was seeking advice on a job opportunity.

But there was one phone call that Celenza received from Caringi, before he went to UMBC, that has never left him.

After a stellar high school career at Archbishop Curley — he was twice The Sun's All-Metro Player of the Year — he was all set to go to Clemson on a full scholarship, but decided to stay home for personal reasons. Ending up at the Community College of Baltimore County in Essex, he took criticism for not taking advantage of the opportunity from Clemson. He was down on soccer, even hinted at quitting.

That's when the phone rang. It was Caringi, who has known Celenza since he was 3 years old.

"He talked with me for about an hour and was pretty much saying, 'What are you thinking?'" Celenza said. "He stood behind me the whole time and he wanted me to get that degree. And that conversation, for him to reach out to me, was big. That made me work harder at Essex knowing I was going to UMBC. Those two years, he stayed on top of me and worried about my grades."

Led by Celenza, the Retrievers made their first NCAA Tournament appearance in 1999. After earning All-American honors in 2000, he joined the Blast still needing to take a few classes to get his degree. Caringi stayed on him and was there when Celenza walked across the stage to receive his diploma.

"He's special because of his personality," Celenza said. "He's intense, he's passionate, and deep down inside, he's a very nice person that helps everybody. He's a coach that can get everything out of his players and you just want to give everything you have to win a game for him."

The Baltimore soccer community rallied around UMBC during last season's tournament run. When the Retrievers were playing, Claddagh's Pub in Canton, a soccer haven, was filled like a U.S. World Cup game was on the televisions.

"What Pete engineered at UMBC last year is going to be legendary because to win at Maryland, to win at Louisville, to win at Creighton and to win at Wake Forest — I mean that's an unparalleled run in the history of college soccer," said Maryland coach Sasho Cirovski. "He's the soccer mayor of Baltimore. Obviously it's tough to get beat on your own field, but if there's one guy you're happy for it's Pete. He's just a class act and great guy."

The 2014 season will be a tough act to follow, but it's the kind of challenge Caringi loves to get his Retrievers up for. The squad returns only three starters — goalie Billy Heavner and McDonogh graduate Malcolm Harris will lead the way — but the team enters the season ranked 12th in the country by the NSCAA, the program's best preseason ranking ever.

Senior defender Zach Wenger, one of 16 returning letter winners, is confident Caringi will put the Retrievers in a position to succeed on and off the field.

"He goes about things the right way. He's always staying on top of us in terms of UMBC soccer," he said. "He's always making sure we're getting the job done in the classroom, carrying ourselves the right way off the field and then all that translates onto the field."

glenn.graham@baltsun.com

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