The previous two seasons, the UMBC soccer team lost its star power.
Before last autumn, Billy Austin, the Major Indoor Soccer League's Rookie of the Year, and flashy 30-goal scorer Giuliano Celenza departed among 13 letter winners. The Retrievers entered this season having lost a host of players drafted by the Blast, their midfield was stripped of three major figures, and sweeper Andy Wells also graduated.
That exodus left a big burden squarely on goalkeeper Brian Rowland, who is the final returning member of the school's 1999 NCAA tournament qualifying team.
Normally a team that pressures relentlessly with its attack, UMBC this season places more emphasis on defense, with Rowland as the focal point.
"We've been very offensive minded in the past," said coach Pete Caringi. "Now, we have to play more defense and take advantage of Brian's talent. We're fortunate he's back because we lost a lot of veteran players."
Rowland remembers well when the Retrievers last made the NCAA tourney field and visited No. 1 Duke, losing in overtime, 4-3.
"I try not to think about it too much because it'll eat you up," said the senior from Toronto. "We didn't know what to expect, but before you knew it the score was 3-1 us with about 25 minutes left.
"To that point, we kind of played without thinking. Then we started realizing we hadn't been in that situation and started thinking. We had our chances, but they got two corner kicks in a row in overtime, and beat us."
Rowland - who is included in the Canadian Olympic team pool - was a tender freshman then, experiencing the heights of two undefeated teams playing in the NCAAs before a huge crowd in Durham, N.C.
Now, he is a salty senior who has started every game except four since he entered UMBC, set a school record with eight shutouts in 2000 and led the Northeast Conference with a 0.96 goals-against average. He also posted consecutive scoreless-minute streaks of 397 and 439 that season.
He chose UMBC because of a liking for Caringi and his staff and because "the program was swinging upward at the time. I felt I had a good chance of playing right away and having an impact in a Division I school."
Maryland was among his other options.
It wasn't long before he was making an impact, registering a shutout in his first college start against San Diego State, allowing only one goal in the NEC tournament and shutting out Lafayette through four overtimes in the NCAA play-in game in his freshman year.
"He's just one of the best goalkeepers around," Caringi said. "Brian has gotten the least amount of credit of any player that has been here the last four years. It's now his team. We're going as far as he leads us, plays in goal and gets the players in front of him to respond."
The loquacious Rowland entered this season having allowed a mere 50 goals in 47 career games. He had his problems when the Retrievers lost both their games in the Battle of Baltimore tournament on their field, but rebounded with a 4-0 shutout of Temple in the Mountaineer Classic in Emmitsburg, his second shutout.
UMBC went on to win the championship of that event, with Caringi opting to give Andy Marchica the start in the final against St. Peter's. The Retrievers are now 3-3 for the season and will face Howard University in Washington tonight.
Without the individual talents of the past, Rowland will play the lead role in UMBC's fate.
"We have a good young team," said Rowland, whose father, Barry, played in the Canadian Football League. "We'll just have to be more organized and compact."