Some of the players for the UMBC men's soccer team arrived to campus early and began working out with one another in anticipation for the upcoming season.
After an unprecedented run to the 2014 College Cup semifinals, there is palpable excitement from the local soccer community for the Retrievers. That success moved UMBC even further up the ladder of college soccer's upper echelon programs. As a result, opposing teams will be more inspired to knock the Retrievers off.
"UMBC is now a big game on everybody's schedule," said UMBC head coach Pete Caringi, who is 260-150-59 (.617 winning percentage) during 24 seasons at the school. "That's a challenge all of us will have to accept. That's the reward for having a great season last year. But this is a whole new group. I think that will be the interesting part ... how we handle the success of last season, basically starting with a lot of new players and some guys in new positions."
The Retrievers open the season against Fairfield Aug. 28. After a match against Central Arkansas two days later, Big Ten power Ohio State visits the campus for a 7 p.m. game Sept. 4.
Caringi heads into the season with three returning starters, so he plans to practice patience as the team evolves. Last year, the Retrievers finished 14-6-5 and advanced to the College Cup semifinals, where they lost to the eventual national champions, Virginia, 1-0.
Senior Malcolm Harris (McDonogh), who started all 24 games last season, will lead the midfield. He scored the game-winner during the Retrievers' 1-0 victory at No. 4 Maryland during the second round of the NCAA tournament.
Harris is part of a deep midfield that also includes returning starter Michael Scott, a native of Scotland, and Michael Burgos, who appeared in 19 games last season. Joe Glos (Perry Hall) and Joe Pratt saw action in 17 and 18 games, respectively, last season, and are both expected to play a big role.
Sophomore Gregg Hauck (North County) should continue to excel after appearing in 17 games, including 12 starts, in 2014.
Despite losing all four starters, UMBC should still be strong on defense with the return of junior goalkeeper Billy Heavner, who took over as the starter in late September and led UMBC to an 11-1-3 record. Nationally, Heavner ranked third in save percentage (84.2) and was fourth in goals-against average (0.53). Heavner came up big throughout the NCAA tournament and did not allow a goal in 364 minutes before Virginia scored during the first half of the semifinals.
Defender Tom Paul, who captained the Blackburn Rovers FC U18 and U16 squads in England, started three games last season and could help fill some of the void left by graduating seniors Oumar Ballo and Marquez Fernandez, both of whom went on to have professional careers.
"We are very confident that we have another special group this year," Heavner said. "We have a nice combination of experienced guys who have won several championships in college mixed with some young, hungry players who want to be a part of UMBC's winning culture."
One of the biggest challenges facing UMBC is finding someone who can consistently score goals. The Retrievers lost forward Kay Banjo to graduation after he led the team with eight goals and five assists. Midfielder Mamadou Kansaye (McDonogh), who scored five goals with six assists last season, also graduated and is now playing professionally.
"It will be the first time in five or six years where we don't have that dominating goal scorer," Caringi said. "We're going to have to find different players to step up and fill that void."
UMBC also added a pair of transfers in forward Shawn Geary (Dundalk and CCBC Essex) and defender Bill Kerr (DeMatha), and both could immediately contribute.
Geary is a big target at 6-foot-1, 165 pounds and scored 18 goals and 40 total points during 30 games for CCBC. As a sophomore, he earned NJCAA All-Northeast region second-team honors and was part of a team that reached the 2014 NJCAA National Division I men's soccer championship.
Kerr transferred after spending two seasons at NCAA Division III Lycoming (Pa.), where he was the first player in the program's history to earn first-team All-American honors from the National Soccer Coaches Association of America. In addition to his exceptional defensive skills, Kerr scored five goals and added four assists during his two years at Lycoming.
"I like them both," Caringi said. "I think for the both of them, the key will be how well they adjust to the Division I level, because they've had success where they're coming from. I'm really optimistic on both of them -- that's for sure."