For Blast forward Giuliano Celenza, December was filled with wonder, delight and love, and it had nothing to do with Christmas.
As Celenza heads into 2004 and tonight's game at Kansas City, he is something of a new man - a new college graduate with a new fiancee and a soon-to-be holder of a new job at 1st Mariner Bank.
"The degree was very important," said Celenza, the team's second-leading goal scorer with 10. "I have a big family - two sisters and a brother. They got good jobs out of high school. I'm the first one to graduate."
A lot of athletes choose to leave school to sign pro contracts, promising to return one day to finish their education. But few ever pass up a big-time free ride to pursue their education and their sport the way Celenza has.
He turned down Clemson, which offered a full scholarship after his graduation from Archbishop Curley. He turned down the then-Baltimore Spirit, who drafted him. Instead, he followed his own path to Essex Community College and then to UMBC before finally accepting an offer from the Blast in 2001. At that point, Celenza still hadn't graduated, but he continued his pursuit and earned his sociology degree last month after nearly six years of labor.
After graduating Dec. 18, Celenza decided to go for a trifecta. He proposed to his girlfriend, Beverly Campbell, Dec. 19 (she said yes, by the way), and celebrated his 25th birthday Dec. 20.
"With Giuliano, it seems to be all or nothing at all," said Blast coach Tim Wittman. "I give him credit for getting his degree. He realizes just what's going on - the state of soccer. He knows what he's getting paid. Now, he has his degree, is getting a job at the bank and getting married. I'm glad to see it. I know players who think soccer lasts forever, and when it doesn't, they have to run around trying to get a job and restart their lives."
Celenza grew up in Highlandtown, where he began kicking a soccer ball at age 3. He played soccer at every opportunity and cheered for the Blast. "I went to all the games with my family," he said. "I grew up watching Coach Timmy play. I wanted to play pro. To be doing it now in my hometown with my family and friends, it's all I wanted."
Of his decision not to go to Clemson, Celenza said, "I just wanted to stay home. And when I turned down Clemson everyone had doubts about whether I'd ever get my degree."
He turned down the Spirit because he did want to finish his education. He went to Essex for the college experience, played soccer and earned a two-year degree. Then he accepted a full scholarship to UMBC, where he was a two-time Northeast Conference Player of the Year. He ranked fourth in the nation in scoring and fifth in goals heading into the conference tournament his senior year. His two-year production of 41 goals and 18 assists make him the school's all-time No. 2 scorer.
Finally, when the local franchise drafted him again - he was the Blast's 2001 territorial pick - Celenza agreed to play, though he was still three classes short of his degree.
That first season with the Blast, he took two courses and found the workload hard. Practice in the morning, classes in the afternoon, studying and games at night. But he did it and might have had his degree last year, except that that one remaining course was offered only in the mornings.
"I didn't say anything to anyone about not being able to get the class," Celenza said. "What could anyone do? I couldn't miss two practices each week. You need your training. I just decided to hold off, and this past semester the class was offered in the afternoons. I don't know what I would have done if it had been mornings all the time.
"But now that I've got the degree and know I don't have to worry about work and class, it's a relief. I've always been focused on the game, but I should be more so now."
While he was at Essex, he met his girlfriend, who is from Perry Hall. They're getting married Aug. 1. While at UMBC, playing for Pete Caringi, he sharpened the skills that have made him a delight for Wittman to coach.
"Giuliano is funny," Wittman said. "He's got a lot of ability and a good attitude toward life. But he sometimes gets down on himself. He over-analyzes. Maybe it's that sociology degree. But why do it? I love to see him blow by somebody. I get a kick out of that. But sometimes he doesn't want to do it after he's made a mistake. He's starting to play well and if he messes up 50 times in his own mind and only gets it right once, that's enough for me. I want him to go after it."
Matchup: Blast (9-5) vs. Kansas City Comets (5-8)
Site: Kemper Arena, Kansas City, Mo.
Radio: WCBM (680 AM)
Outlook: The Blast has not won consecutive games since its six-game winning streak ended Dec. 13 with a home loss to the Comets in overtime. The Blast has won one of its past four overtime games and is coming off Saturday's 7-6 overtime loss in Dallas. Kansas City, meanwhile, split two games after beating the Blast, and then Wednesday lost to the Dallas Sidekicks, 9-8, in overtime. The Comets, whose 6.5 goals-per-game average ranks second in the league, have attempted to strengthen their goalkeeping by adding Chris Damico, who played for Harrisburg last season. The Comets will be without Dusan Radovanovic (knee). The Blast lists David Bascome (ankle) as probable.