The first time UMBC coach Pete Caringi saw Phil Saunders, the 12-year-old soccer player was losing. The coach was watching his son, whose team was in the process of dominating Saunders' squad. Caringi also remembers a recruiting pitch that day.
"His dad comes up and [starts] telling me how good his son is, and I'm like, 'Yeah, yeah.' Meanwhile, as I was watching the game [Phil] was playing really, really well," Caringi said with a smile. "I kind of kept a mental note about it."
Last Saturday, nearly a decade after that first encounter, Saunders blocked two penalty kicks to help UMBC win the America East championship, 4-2 in a shootout. The Retrievers' keeper earned Most Outstanding Player honors for his efforts.
"I was really happy for him," Caringi said. "Just seeing how he's went through some trying times and for it to culminate with winning a championship at home in front of the big crowd and him being named the most valuable player on the field, it all comes full circle."
The trying times Caringi speaks of go beyond the starting spot Saunders lost as a sophomore. Rather, they come from losing the man who instilled his love for soccer: his father. Now playing in his honor, Saunders hopes to lead a stifling UMBC defense deep into the NCAA tournament. The Retrievers will face Old Dominion in a first-round matchup Thursday in Norfolk, Va.
"We are going to make a run at it," said Saunders, a redshirt junior. "We are hitting our best soccer now."
As a freshman out of Perry Hall, Saunders won the starting keeper position and helped UMBC to a 14-6 record and a spot in the conference championship game, where the Retrievers fell to Stony Brook, 2-0. As senior back Liam Paddock described it, Saunders became a "superstar."
But Saunders struggled in his second year, going through a "rough patch" that forced Caringi to make a change in goal.
"It was hard, because on the personal level you know the kid, you know how good he can be, [but] you know you're doing it for the team," Caringi said. "My thing to him was in the long term he's going to benefit from this decision and that's exactly what's happening."
Saunders spent the remainder of his sophomore campaign and his 2011 redshirt season learning from coach Sam DeBone and former UMBC goalie-turned-coach Dan Louisignau.
"I learned a lot from those guys," Saunders said. "That year-and-a-half where I sat and watched, I learned probably the most in my whole life about the game and the keeper position."
But in the spring of 2011, Saunders' father, Ian, died after a battle with the nerve cell disease ALS, more commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease.
"We all took [Phil] under our wing to make sure he was doing OK and if he needed help or guidance, I was going to be there, more as a dad then as a coach," Caringi said.
Ian Saunders played professionally in England, working his way up through the Liverpool academy, starting at the age of 12. While his passion for soccer was passed on to his son, he encouraged him to excel in everything.
"He had never played baseball before, [but] he'd be out there playing catch with me," Saunders said. "Anything to get me better at any sport or anything that I wanted to do."
No matter how sick the ALS made his father, the elder Saunders always managed to make it to every game to cheer on his son. After his death on April 7, 2011, Saunders was determined to get back in the net.
"I wanted to go out there and play for him," said Saunders, who kneels by the post before every game and shares a few words with his father. "The year before that my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer, so it was a rough two years there, but it made me stronger. I know he's still looking down on me and he probably had the best seats in the house for the championship."
With their victory over the weekend, UMBC enters the national title hunt as one of the hottest teams in the field, with seven straight victories and a defense that hasn't given up more than one goal in those wins.
With another year of eligibility, Caringi is excited about the continuing growth of Saunders — a player he firmly believes can play professionally. From watching the 12-year-old lose badly to now helping lead a dark-horse contender — and overcoming life's toughest obstacles in the process — Caringi knows this isn't the end.
"He's a success story because he's a local kid that just worked his way up," Caringi said. "He wasn't given anything, [and] he just got better and better and better. The story is not over that's for sure."