The UMBC men's soccer team departs for Cary, N.C., for Friday's NCAA semifinal against Virginia.
Pete Caringi had built a 33-year coaching career on addressing his players as adults rather than scolding them like boys. So it wasn't his first go-round with this type of meeting.
It was the third week in October and Caringi's UMBC men's soccer team had just come home from a 2-0 loss at Navy in which the Retrievers had played neither well nor hard. The defeat was the team's fifth of the season after UMBC had lost just twice in all of 2013. The coach asked his team's leaders to sit with him. He didn't bark but gave it to them straight.
"If we keep going like this, we're not even going to go anywhere," Caringi recalls saying. "If we're going to do something, we have to get together right now. Else, you're going to look back on it and go, 'This was a real bust.'"
The Retrievers have not lost a game since. A group that felt its season slipping away less than two months ago is about to become the first UMBC team in any sport to compete in a Division I national semifinal game. (That doesn't count the chess team, which has won several national championships.)
"Either you get yourself straight or you get out," senior captain Mamadou Kansaye said, reflecting on the meeting with Caringi. "And we decided to get our heads straight."
The Retrievers' College Cup run has seemed particularly improbable: four games, four trips to opponents' home fields, four shutout victories.
But don't insult these players with questions about glass slippers. They firmly expected to win each of those games, even the one at No. 4 Maryland, perennial king of the mountain among the state's college soccer programs. The Retrievers believe that by not seeming intimidated in the least, they actually intimidate their more touted foes.
"When you look at what we've done the last few years, it's not a Cinderella story," said Caringi, who's coaching his 24th season for the university. "And yet I'm sure no one, when they're looking at those final four teams, expected UMBC to be one of them. I think we feed off that."
The Retrievers proudly take the pitch with a Napoleon complex, eager to prove a modest-sized school from Baltimore County — known more for its star president, Freeman Hrabowski, than its star athletes — can whup the heavyweights.
Hrabowski has always preached academics before athletics, but this team also has him gushing over the way it has taken out schools with fancier facilities and higher-paid coaches. (Caringi's Maryland counterpart, Sasho Cirovski, makes more than four times as much according to the most recent state salary data.)
"This success reflects grit and passion," Hrabowski said. "The message is you don't have to be rich to be the very best."
In fact, UMBC has launched a $2,000 fundraising drive, just to defray the travel costs of the tournament run.
Virginia is up next on Friday at 5 p.m. in Cary, N.C., and if UMBC leaps that hurdle, No. 2 UCLA could be waiting in Sunday's national championship game.
Even with end-of-semester exams looming, UMBC's campus has gone soccer mad in recent weeks. About 200 people crammed a lounge in the student commons last Friday to watch a web feed of UMBC's game at No. 12 Creighton, projected on a big screen. The place went berserk when senior Kay Banjo popped the back of the net to clinch a penalty shootout.
"It's almost like the World Cup has hit UMBC," said senior Zach Trout of Frederick. "Everyone's a soccer fan right now."
Trout would know. He's president of "Lot 17," the team's official crew of super fans. Every time the Retrievers played at home this season, Lot 17 rowdies showed up in face and body paint, banging a bass drum from the stands at Retriever Park. Many will bus to North Carolina for Friday's semifinal.
Senior left back Jordan Becker calls them "the best fans in the country."
Trout spent all day in the library Tuesday, wrapping up his work so he could think all soccer all the time come the weekend. He couldn't have envisioned such a scenario when the team went through its rough patch early in the season.
"To go from No. 4 in the nation the previous season to losing to nobodies, I thought we were done," he said. "If you asked me then would we be here, I'd have said no way."
The Retrievers will tell you they're a team hardened by adversity.
The 2013 team was probably more talented, breezing through its regular season with a succession of high-scoring victories. "We were kind of on cruise control last year," says Kansaye, a Baltimore resident who played at McDonogh. "We barely hit any challenges."
But the ride came to a crushingly abrupt halt when UMBC lost the first NCAA tournament game it had ever hosted in a penalty shootout with Connecticut. The team's top two scorers, Kadeem Dacres and Caringi's son, Pete III, and its stalwart goalie, Phil Saunders, all signed professional contracts.
As bad as the remaining players felt, they resolved to produce a happier story in 2014. For many, this year would be a last chance.
"Last year helped us find ourselves for this year," Kansaye said. We saw how close we came. We all came back to the locker room and decided 'Why not us?' There was more in us than what we had showed."
They would be aided by the flashy Banjo, a refugee from Towson's shuttered men's soccer program.
Banjo thought he'd played his last college game in 2012. Instead of transferring from Towson after three seasons, the Upper Marlboro resident figured he'd try to land a pro deal. "I never thought I'd be in the tournament at all," he says. "To be in the final four is ridiculous."
Caringi — aided by calls from some of Banjo's acquaintances on the UMBC roster — convinced the high-scoring forward he'd make himself a more appealing prospect by playing one more college season.
Banjo leads UMBC with 22 points in 22 games. He has fit seamlessly with a veteran team, partially because so many of the players are from in-state and competed in the same youth leagues.
There's a strong streak of local pride in this bunch. They relished knocking off Maryland in College Park because they wanted to be the ones representing the state in Cary.
"In the locker room, it becomes a pride thing of, 'We are the real Maryland team,'" Kansaye said.
Fans felt it too, storming Maryland's field after UMBC's 1-0 victory.
To get this far, Caringi also had to find a replacement for Saunders. He started the season with freshman Phil Breno (South Carroll) guarding the net. But he eventually switched to sophomore Billy Heavner, who'd spent the summer recovering from a shoulder injury. Heavner has played remarkably well of late, helping UMBC hold opponents to three goals over the past 10 games.
Watching Heavner deflect shot after shot in UMBC's round-of-16 win at Louisville, Caringi grasped what an unusual zone his team had entered. He remembers Louisville's star player streaking toward the goal with a perfect scoring chance and pushing his shot wide of the net.
"At that point, I said, 'Wow, it's destiny,'" Caringi said. "Every time I've seen that, the ball went in the net. And this time, it wasn't going in the net."
The veteran coach grew up in Highlandtown, learning the game from the older Italian men in his neighborhood, who flashed their skills in recreational tournaments.
He became a star player at the University of Baltimore in the 1970s and put down deep roots in a Maryland soccer community that's always produced its fair share of excellent high school and college players. Old competitors and fellow coaches have peppered him with calls and notes in recent weeks, saying they're rooting for the Retrievers to go all the way.
Several times, Caringi has considered offers to leave UMBC. But Hrabowski has always intervened personally to keep him.
"He's just a wonderful educator," said Hrabowski, who'll be in North Carolina cheering the team. "It's never about him. It's always about those students and the love of the game."
To a man, his UMBC players say Caringi has their best interests at heart, regardless of the results on the field. With his barrel chest and salt-and-pepper sideburns, the coach comes off as something like a trusted uncle. He'll intervene quickly if expectations aren't met but rarely with a bark or a bellow.
"He's a good guy first," Heavner said. "That makes it very easy to decide to play for him."