Three years ago, high school soccer star Giuliano Celenza decided to stay home instead of leaving town to play for a ranked college team.
Thanks in part to his talent, another ranked team is now less than a half-hour drive from his Highlandtown home.
The UMBC men's soccer team is ranked No. 22 in the National Soccer Coaches Association of America poll after going unbeaten in its first 14 games (13-0-1), and 17th in the Soccer America poll.
"They were a good team," Celenza said of the Retrievers during the previous two years, which he spent at Essex Community College. "I figured I could help them a bit, and that for the next two years it would be a good fit for me to play soccer."
Celenza, a star at Archbishop Curley and then at Essex, has continued to shine at UMBC, scoring 14 goals so far this season.
But there are other players who are lifting UMBC. Ty Engram, another forward, was close to Celenza in scoring until he received a red card and two-game suspension for fighting.
Midfielders Matt Joseph, James Hamilton and Matt Gormley have also put together solid seasons, while defenders Andy Wells and Kurt Meyers and goaltender Tom Wunk are a big reason UMBC's opponents have been held to six goals this season.
In UMBC's 7-2 win over Long Island on Sunday, Celenza recorded his second hat trick of the season. He used a variety of moves to help the Retrievers beat the Blackbirds, and to run his total to 11 goals in the last six games.
In the 18th minute, he used his footwork to balance the ball and block his defender before scoring. Nine minutes later, he juked LIU goaltender Orville Jackson and simply rolled the ball over the line.
His final goal -- "one of the prettiest goals you can hope to see in soccer," according to UMBC coach Pete Caringi -- came as he volleyed a swift pass.
"He's a natural goal scorer," Caringi said. "He has a knack for the goal. He has a superb shot on goal, and he's usually extremely accurate."
Some would say that Celenza's appearance on a ranked team is overdue. After all, this is the same player that a pro indoor team, the Baltimore Spirit, drafted as a high schooler after he earned All-Metro honors three times at Curley.
He decided not to go pro and signed with national college power Clemson in February 1997, Instead, he enrolled at Essex that fall. While some thought his academic status may have been a factor, Celenza said he had personal reasons.
"My family is very tight and I didn't feel comfortable leaving the family," Celenza said. "When I didn't go to Clemson, people told me, 'You're making a dumb decision.' "
Celenza speaks of his campus apartment as if it's a day's drive from Highlandtown. It matters that Caringi grew up in the same neighborhood as Celenza and has known him since he was a toddler.
The coach, in his ninth season at UMBC, said that Highlandtown "kids" usually stay home, and that Celenza may have been going to Clemson because the South Carolina school had also recruited two of his club teammates -- Mike Potempa (Loyola) and Pablo Webster (McDonogh).
"He thought, 'If everyone else is going away, I should go away, too,' " Caringi said. "When it came time to go, that's when he realized that he didn't want to go."
Outsiders saw this as a red flag, however, since Celenza's older brother, Antonio -- another accomplished player -- had dropped out of Essex after one year. "There were a lot of rumors about [Giuliano] not being that good of a student," Essex coach Tom Wall said.
"Back then, I really didn't put my mind into school," Celenza said.
At one point during his freshman year at Essex, some thought he would give up school and competitive soccer.
In retrospect, Celenza said that he would never think about giving up soccer, but he might have considered leaving school. His train of thought -- mentioned in an article in The Sun -- got him a phone call from Caringi.
" 'You know and I know that you're not quitting soccer,' " Celenza remembers Caringi telling him. "I have no idea what I would have done. That's one of the reasons I decided to stay in school; to have something to fall back on in case soccer didn't work out."
Wall said that Celenza made the effort at Essex, seeking the aid of tutors in order to get his associate's degree, which was a point of pride for Wall.
"He really turned it on here academically," Wall said. "He had to pour it on his last semester. He wasn't a qualifier.
"He needed his AA [associate in arts degree] to go in at UMBC. He needed 17 or 18 credits in the spring [of 1999] and he really worked hard."
Celenza's soccer skills were unabated at Essex. He was a two-time junior college All-American, scoring 50 goals in his two years at the school. Meanwhile, UMBC had an 11-7-2 season in 1998 and finished fourth in the NEC.
Though UMBC wasn't a powerhouse program, going to UMBC made sense for Celenza, with such former club teammates as Cuomo, Gormley and Pat Halter playing for the Retrievers, and fellow Highlandtowner Caringi coaching.
Halter, who played his high school ball at Mount Hebron, transferred from Old Dominion after two seasons.
"Last spring, we got Pat Halter and we knew that Giuliano was coming," Meyers said. "We knew that he and Ty would be our two goal scorers, and that's all we'd been missing."
The response around campus has been surprising to Caringi, though the hysteria for UMBC men's soccer hasn't reached the point where students abandon the NFL for the Retrievers on a rainy Sunday afternoon.
Still, as evidenced by the 335 who braved the rain and cold of the Long Island game, the coach said fan support this season has been the best in his tenure.
"I sense that the students are behind us," Caringi said. "They may have been slow to get behind the basketball team [last winter], but they've jumped on and supported our team very quickly."