For John Jancuska, who began coaching college baseball in 1976, UMBC's NCAA tournament game tonight against seventh-ranked East Carolina is a rare shot against an elite team.
In the years since arriving in Catonsville at the age of 23, Jancuska has traded in the hope of a College World Series - or even a post at his alma mater, Delaware - for a satisfying stability that has included 500 wins, a milestone he passed this season.
"I've lived here for 24 years; this is my home," said Jancuska (pronounced JAYN-ka-shay), who lives in Sykesville with his wife, Lee Ann, and their three daughters. "At 23, you think that maybe you can be the coach of a big-time program. But after a number of years when we went Division I and were competitive, this was a good situation.
"Most coaches at the mid-level know you're capable of doing it every year, but it's hard to do it every year because there's so much parity. So you're very fortunate to go."
With the tan that comes from spring days spent outdoors, Jancuska can look like he's vacationing in Cabo, and he carries a similarly breezy demeanor in leading the Retrievers (31-18-2), who reached the NCAAs by winning the Northeast Conference tournament two weekends ago.
"He's not very verbal," said Scott Kosmicky, a sophomore catcher from Archbishop Carroll, who led the team in batting average (.388), home runs (17) and RBIs (62). Kosmicky said he actually likes the yelling he remembers from former coaches, but from Jancuska, "it's amazing to see how he can get the same point across just by being himself."
The coach might have wanted to rant last year, when his team entered the conference tournament as a league favorite and was blown out in two games.
"We were embarrassed - or really disappointed - by our performance," said the school's athletic director, Charles Brown.
Pitcher Eric Weltmer said: "I really think it was inexperience in that situation. We thought that the other teams were just going to roll over and die for us."
Determined to avoid a similar fate in 2001, the Retrievers focused on getting more balance in the lineup and on walking fewer batters.
At the plate, newcomers, such as right fielder Rick Guarno (.356, 19 RBIs) and center fielder John Shuler (.343, 3 HRs, 29 RBIs), supplemented improvements made by Kosmicky, Old Mill's Chad Gerben (.387, 4, 57), shortstop Jared Boyd (.382, 4, 39) and designated hitter Greg Deboy (.349, 7, 47).
It meant that UMBC hit .335 as a team, seventh in Division I, with eight batters over .300. The Retrievers had 29 hits against Mount St. Mary's on April 1.
"It's better to have nine guys hit .350 than to have four guys hit .400 and the rest hitting .250," Jancuska said.
On the mound, the coach said he would use the pitchers who threw strikes, whether they were hit or not. The staff, which lost five starters from 2000, apparently listened. After walking 149 last year, the Retrievers cut back to 103 this season.
Weltmer, a senior from New Cumberland, Pa., walked nine in 115 2/3 innings while compiling a 12-1 record. He won two games during the NEC tournament.
Jancuska "has been preaching the same thing for four years: Don't walk people," Weltmer said. "You have to be tough enough to tip your hat to the batter if he can beat you, but I think I can beat most people."
The team had hoped for a tourist-friendly first-round site, and pumped fists on selection day when Northern Iowa got sent to No. 8 Nebraska and when Georgia Southern went to No. 6 Georgia. The players groaned when No. 5 Tulane in New Orleans drew Southern and No. 2 Miami drew Bucknell.
In the end, the Retrievers drew perhaps the least exciting site of all: Wilson, N.C. That's where East Carolina (44-11) will be host because its baseball facility in Greenville didn't have enough capacity.
But though UMBC's season may not conclude at an enticing postseason site or with a berth in the College World Series, the Retrievers will settle for an ending that's merely wonderful.
"Of course, we want to win," Kosmicky said, "but it's been a dream come true."
Schedule for the NCAA baseball regional at Wilson, N.C.:
Game 2: Winthrop (46-14-1) vs. South Florida (32-29), 3 p.m.
Game 1: East Carolina (44-11) vs. UMBC (31-18-2), 7 p.m.
Game 3: Game 1 loser vs. Game 2 loser, 11:30 a.m.
Game 4: Game 1 winner vs.
Game 2 winner, 3 p.m.
Game 5: Game 3 winner vs.
Game 4 loser, 7 p.m.
Game 6: Game 4 winner vs.
Game 5 winner, 2 p.m.
Game 7: Game 4 winner vs.
Game 5 winner, after Game 6, if necessary