One month ago, the UMBC men's soccer team was a frustrated group. The Retrievers' offense was inconsistent. Their defense had failed to record a shutout. They had just dropped two games in a one-week span. Their season appeared to be slipping away.
Don't look now, but the hardest-charging team in the Big South Conference is UMBC. After beating Howard on Friday, 3-2, the Retrieverswound up the regular season with a 15-2-1 record and increased their school-record unbeaten streak to 10. Their 15 victories also ties a regular-season school record.
And with the Big South tournament looming this weekend at UNC-Greensboro, the second-seeded Retrievers, 6-2-1 in conference play, appear to be peaking at the perfect time.
The offense is playing better than ever, with a school-record 70 goals.
Sophomore midfielder J. J. Kremer, tied for fifth on the school's all-time scoring list with 55 points, has 13 goals and 10 assists, and he led the Retrievers to the Florida Invitational Cup &r; tournament title two weeks ago. Six other players have also scored in double figures, led by Bobby Wagner (14 goals, five assists).
Senior forward Rob Elliott probably had the best month of all. After struggling early in the season, Elliott finished with nine goals and a school-record 15 assists. He has scored at least one point in nine consecutive games.
If the Retrievers are to win the tournament, though, their defense has to get stingy. They have surrendered 33 goals, highest among the six tournament qualifiers. It has been a boost getting freshman goalkeeper C. J. Norton back after a broken finger had sidelined him for six weeks. Norton promptly recorded two shutouts after he returned. Still, UMBC has allowed nine goals in its past four games.
UMBC, which received a bye in the first round of the Big South tournament, will play Friday against the winner of tomorrow's UNC-Greensboro vs. Towson State game. A victory would send it to the title game -- probably against regular-season champion Campbell, which whipped the Retrievers, 6-2, for their first loss of the season.
This weekend's winner gets an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. The Retrievers almost certainly have to win the Big South to make it to the NCAAs, since they don't figure to qualify for one of the 16 remaining at-large bids.
UMBC women's near miss
Who could have figured on UMBC's women's soccer team coming so close to winning an automatic NCAA tournament bid in last weekend's Big South tournament at UMBC?
The third-seeded Retrievers outshot fourth-seeded Campbell, 17-6 -- including 13-4 in the second half -- before falling 2-1 to the Camels in the championship game. It capped a wild weekend that saw top seeds UNC-Greensboro and Radford fall, respectively, in the semifinals to Campbell and UMBC.
The Retrievers finished 11-11. Four players, Denise Schilte, Kris Einarson, Kasy Kruger and Ginina Jackson, made the all-tournament team. Schilte, a sophomore forward who led UMBC with 40 points (14 goals, 12 assists), was named to the All-Big South first team.
Bulldogs bite back
Although they won't be lining up for any postseason awards, the Bowie State Bulldogs will be able to look back on their football season with some pride.
After stumbling to an 0-4 start under first-year coach Sherman Wood, the Bulldogs rebounded quietly to have the second-best October of any college team in the state. Following Saturday's 18-0 win over Fayetteville State -- the Bulldogs' first shutout in four years -- Bowie State finished the month with a 3-1-1 record to improve to 3-5-1 heading into Saturday's finale at New Haven.
"Our main goal was not to finish last in the [Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association] conference, and we've done that," said Wood, who was an assistant at Bowie State for six seasons before returning this year after a season at Virginia Union.
The Bulldogs, who finished 3-4-1 in the CIAA and probably will end up eighth in the 11-team league, have improved in small increments. Through the season's first month, they were the most penalized team in the CIAA. Now, they are the third-least penalized team in the league. After giving up big plays routinely on defense in September, they have surrendered only 48 points in their past five games. Their special-teams play has improved steadily.
The defensive secondary has been outstanding. In addition to being an excellent punt return man, senior cornerback Dwayne Zackery has knocked down 15 passes, intercepted three, recovered two fumbles and made 55 tackles. Free safety Chris Banks (63 tackles, six interceptions) and strong safety Gary Beckford (53 tackles, eight pass deflections) have done their parts.
Defensive ends Tracy Ledbetter (80 tackles, 5 1/2 sacks) and Chris Thompson (53 tackles, seven sacks) have set the tone up front.
The future bodes well for Bowie State. It will lose only seven of 22 starters to graduation. The Bulldogs, 1-10 last year, don't look like doormats anymore.
Overlea grad Hopkins commits
Bernard Hopkins, an All-Metro basketball player at Overlea High School who had a terrific season at Hagerstown Junior College last year, has committed orally to Virginia Commonwealth for next fall.
Hopkins, 6 feet 7, 245 pounds, led Overlea to the state championship game in 1992. He averaged a team-high 16.5 points and 10.3 rebounds and shot 65.8 percent last year for Hagerstown.