In the midst of a one-win campaign in 2012, UMBC women's soccer coach Leslie Wray found a reason for optimism.
Aside from a 5-0 rout of St. Peter's on Aug. 31, the team battled to five draws and lost seven of 11 games by a single goal. That may not sound like much of a moral victory, but for Wray, who was in her first year coaching the Retrievers, it was a glimmer of hope.
"[W]e knew last year that we were going in the right direction and we had to kind of keep our focus on our main goal," Wray said Tuesday. "Even in some of our hard losses last year, we were being effective. We just weren't getting the wins."
Wray's faith has been rewarded this fall as UMBC has already collected the most wins in a season since 2005, when that squad went 9-9-1. The team is 5-4-2 overall and 0-1-0 in the America East Conference.
Winning — a rarity for this program for so long — has reinvigorated the players and coaches.
"It feels great just to be a part of that," said senior goalkeeper Lauren Kadet. "I know being an upperclassman and a senior, it feels good to finally be part of a change in the culture. You feel like you're actually contributing to it."
"When [fellow students] ask how your game went, you can say, 'We won,'" junior forward Jessy Brown said. "And that feels good."
This year's success is a refreshing change of pace for the Retrievers, who endured losing records every year from 2006 to 2012. Over that stretch, the team never won more than four games in a season, notched double-digit losses every season, and suffered the indignation of going winless in 2011 with a 0-14-3 record.
That's when Wray stepped in. The former University of Maryland standout and former Towson women's soccer coach — who stepped down after the 2006 season to care for her three young children for five years — was not discouraged by UMBC's rapid decline.
Instead, she saw an opportunity.
"I didn't really see this program as being that much different from the program at Towson," said Wray, who is still the all-time winningest coach at Towson with 55 victories in eight seasons. "The funding was here and I learned that going through the interview process, and knowing the resources they had at UMBC, there's no reason that the program should be doing so poorly. And I was familiar with the America East. I was familiar with a lot that this program had and that it could change."
One of the first things Wray did shortly after getting hired in January 2012 was put her players through a fitness test. She estimated that about 95 percent of the players did not meet the test's standard of fitness.
Wray also instituted a family-like atmosphere and tried to "keep the drama to a minimum." She admitted that she wasn't sure if the players would be receptive to her ideas, but Kadet and Brown said many welcomed the changes.
"We kind of got rundown," Kadet said of the mounting losses. "When you're constantly losing, you start to lose hope. You start to not believe in your individual ability, and that took a toll on the team."
"We're really big on changing the culture," Brown said. "I think this year, we really are more disciplined. We work together a lot more. And especially coming off these wins, we have more confidence and more belief in ourselves that we can win games. I think that's really been the big difference."
The Retrievers have spread the wealth on offense with six players scoring at least one goal and four more players recording at least one point. The defense is anchored by Kadet, who recently became the school's all-time leader in saves with 348.
"We definitely anticipated being more successful," Wray said. "We knew that part of the change of culture was making sure that if you look at our style, it's our work rate and that we're fit. That's been from Day One. We want to be fit, and we want to have a high work rate."
Brown and Kadet said deeper chemistry among the players has them convinced that this team can realize its potential.
"I think we can win the conference," Brown said. "I really do, and I think everybody else does, too."
"We actually believe it," Kadet agreed. "We're not just saying that. And it feels good. You walk around campus with your head held higher. When someone asks, 'Do you play on the women's soccer team?,' you say, 'Yes. Yes, I do.'"
Wray was not quite as bold as her players, but she said this squad has an opportunity to qualify for the America East tournament.
"It's been our goal to get into the conference tournament. I think that's got to be our first step," she said. "Once we're there, then it's anybody and it's game by game. I really feel that in these next seven games, we can get the wins and the points we need to get into the conference tournament.
"If that's a third seed or a sixth seed, we're still happy with it. Last year, the sixth seed [Stony Brook] won it and the first seed [Hartford] didn't. So it's anybody's game once you get into it, but we have to open that door first."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun