For UMBC men's soccer coach Pete Caringi, this has almost been a dream season. Almost. The Retrievers have gone from soccer's depths to its peak, turning in an undefeated season (19-0-2) after years of disappointment.
"Every goal this team has set out to accomplish, it has, which is rare," Caringi said. "You can be involved with a sport all your life and still never have this happen."
Critics, however, are quick to call the "dream" tainted. None of UMBC's opponents this year rank among the Top 25, which explains why the Retrievers, despite a near-perfect season, must travel to No. 1 Duke (15-0-3) tomorrow for the first round of the NCAA tournament.
"As far as our schedule is concerned, we're not going to apologize to anyone," Caringi said. "We're playing the best schedule we can, but last year when we called some of the best teams in the nation, they either couldn't fit us in or gave us only one date that was impossible to work out."
Now, finding himself in a position to defend his team's reputation, Caringi looks at the first-round challenge as somewhat of a blessing.
"Obviously, one of the things we try to do all year is gain some respect," he said. "We haven't played a team of the caliber of Duke. Here's our chance to prove something. We'll play the same soccer we've played all year -- no changes -- and let's see what happens."
UMBC's success is thanks in part to two transfers who have become team leaders: senior Ty Engram and junior Giuliano Celenza.
Engram was recruited because he happened to play for a talented junior college team. Caringi remembers Engram not even among the best on the team, but a hunch encouraged him to track the young talent and two years later he has combined with Celenza to provide the offensive attack for the Retrievers.
"We have a good combination of solid defense -- with two very good goalkeepers -- and an explosive offense," Caringi said.
His team has outscored opponents, 69-10, yet in the first round of the national championship, the Retrievers got the worst draw of the field. They face a Duke squad with its best record since 1982, when it made the national finals.
Duke and UMBC have met once, in 1978, when UMBC stole a 2-0 win. This year, the odds aren't in favor of that.
"There is a sense of urgency for this team, for sure," Duke goalkeeper Jeff Haywood said. "To show we are a crunch-time team, that we can get results when they are needed. We haven't seen a team this year that, if we play to our capability, we can't beat."
The Retrievers don't appear scared, though.
"I've played in some big games before," said UMBC midfielder Matt Gormley, a transfer from Wake Forest who has played on the U.S. national team. "I have that same feeling again that I had in those games. Is it nervousness? No, we have nothing to lose. We want to shock the world."