UMBC completes titanic turnaround

After going 3-39-9 the past three seasons, UMBC went 13-5-2 this season, tying for the regular-season conference title and winning the conference tournament. Courtesy UMBC

Jessy Brown won back-to-back state soccer championships in her final two seasons at American Heritage High School in Plantation, Fla. The two seasons before that ended in the championship game and semifinals, respectively. Her best guess is that in high school, she was a part of perhaps four losses. If it was more than that, it wasn't more by many.

It took just six games in 2010 for her to experience four losses in her first college season at Maryland-Baltimore County.

And that turned out to be a hot streak compared with what came next.

UMBC wasn't the worst team in Division I over the three seasons that preceded the current one, but it's safe to say tumbling the rest of the way down the ladder wouldn't have left a bruise. Loss followed loss, and ultimately lost season followed lost season for the Retrievers. Brown, a biology major who earned academic honors in each of her first three years, sought solace the only place she could.

"I have to be successful in something," Brown only half-jokingly told herself about her studies.

Those good grades finally have competition. When UMBC's name popped up on the screen Monday evening opposite No. 1 seed Virginia Tech in the NCAA tournament bracket, it probably attracted little attention outside the team's own viewing party. To most, the America East champion represented just the specific speed bump the Hokies would presumably roll over on the way to more challenging tests. But for Brown, a redshirt junior, and senior teammates Lauren Kadet and Stephanie Smith, there was a great deal more meaning to those four letters in that context.

UMBC is in the NCAA tournament. No matter how short its stay, the length of the journey makes that no less a success than anything that happens in the College Cup three weeks from now.

"I see all these other schools, and I know a lot of people at these other schools and hear them talk about how they're in the NCAA tournament and it's no big deal," Kadet said. "But for us, it is a big deal. You feel honored to finally be among all these really good teams and good schools.

"I'm just so proud of our girls and our team and our program for turning it around."

Turning around the Titanic as it approached that iceberg would have been only marginally more difficult.

Strip away the nouns, verbs and adjectives and let these numbers rattle around in your brain for a moment: 3-39-9. That was the career record Brown, Kadet and Smith carried into the 2013 season, carried like Marley's chains when he visited Scrooge. Fifty-one times they warmed up before games, listened to a coach's final words of motivation, heard the referee blow the whistle and began to run.

Three times they won. In three years. The thought of qualifying even for the conference tournament was naively optimistic. The NCAA tournament might as well have been the World Cup.

In 2010, UMBC checked in at No. 315 in the final adjusted RPI before the tournament. On a list of 322 schools. A year later the Retrievers had climbed all the way up to No. 309. A season ago they were No. 274. Kadet said she and her teammates sometimes watched tournament games on television, but it was always a little painful. It meant watching everything they were not.

The losing didn't start with the current senior class. In fact, they were sold on UMBC as recruits in part by the opportunity to take part in changing the program. The Retrievers had never been an NCAA tournament team, but they were at least sporadically successful in the past, including the late 1990s under current UCLA coach Amanda Cromwell. But from 2006 through 2009, the team posted a 12-56-4 record.

Losing became part of the culture. It wasn't so much a lack of desire to win or even a lack of effort toward that end. It was just an expectation of what likely would happen. A resolutely optimistic Canadian goalkeeper, Kadet will tell you that she believes her team is going to win every game, that she would still feel that way if the opponent were the U.S. national team. Even she hit a low ebb amid the endless setbacks.

Late in the 2010 season, UMBC traveled to conference foe Albany and was outshot 32-3 by a Great Danes team that was itself hardly the class of the league. That the Retrievers lost only 1-0 had a lot to do with Kadet's 11 saves while under constant siege. She was therefore amazed to hear teammates taking satisfaction in the fact that the margin had been but a single goal, as if it had been a moral victory.

"If you guys are OK with settling for 1-0 losses, maybe this isn't the program for you," Kadet recalled saying. "People here are trying to change the culture. People are trying to change the program."

Change, it turns out, is difficult. A season later, another nondescript Albany team outshot UMBC 24-9 on the Retrievers' home field. Again Kadet stood on her head and made nine saves. Again her team lost 1-0. UMBC didn't win a single game that season.

That was how it went. Nothing seemed to change.

"It wasn't hard to show up every day because you kind of set your own personal goals," Kadet said. "But it was hard walking away after. I don't know, I feel like with our team, some people on our team lost hope, and then those who still had it and who still had that fight, they were left to hang by themselves."

With no changes in the results, a change in coaches came after the winless 2011 season. The head coach at Towson for eight seasons, Leslie Wray stepped away from that job in 2006 to raise her first two children (a third followed not long after). For most people, UMBC was a job with nothing going for it. For Wray, who lives a few miles from the school, it seemed like the perfect chance to get back in the game.

One of her first messages was that no matter what, it was within their power to be the fittest team in the conference right away. For the most part, players bought in. But when all those spring and summer workouts failed to turn into wins last season, frustration returned.

As conference play neared a season ago and the losses kept coming, a senior came in to Wray's office. The coach wanted to know why her play had suffered in recent games. The player said she had done all the training and all the work to prepare for the season. She just thought there would be a few more wins in return. The Retrievers finished 1-11-5 and failed to win a conference game.

"We were playing better, you could tell, but we just weren't getting the results we wanted," Kadet said. "So you kind of lost hope for a little bit, just because we were doing everything we were supposed to do. We just weren't getting the outcomes we wanted."

It's difficult to pinpoint exactly why that changed this season. A talented freshman class and another season of maturing from a big sophomore class played a role. So did having Brown healthy after she missed last season with a knee injury. She found a home in midfield and has seven goals this season after going without a goal in her previous two seasons. In maintaining fitness and focusing on set pieces, the Retrievers equipped themselves with tools that level the playing field against opponents that might have more individual talent. And Kadet remained a tremendous asset in goal.

Whatever the proper ratios of reasons, UMBC went 13-5-2, tied for the regular-season conference title and won the conference tournament.

"I never thought, and as a coaching staff I don't think we ever thought, that going from a one-win season to a 13-win season was going to happen this year," Wray said. "There are things we did on the field and we did in practice and the players did that just really worked in our favor. And there's a little bit of luck with it. There's that confidence. Winning teams believe they can win. I think that's held true for us.

"We've been on the other side of it, where losing teams are going to find ways to lose."

When UMBC defeated Robert Morris on Sept. 6 this season, it represented the program's first home victory since Aug. 20, 2010, the first game Brown, Kadet and Smith ever played. They were among seven members of their class on that team. They are the only three who remain. The others either transferred or walked away from the sport entirely. And Brown, Kadet and Smith are going to savor every bit of this experience.

"It just feels like, finally, something is going our way," Brown said. "It just feels so great. I'm just so proud of myself for sticking it out and really staying with it.

"I don't know, it's just happiness and relief and excitement."

Those emotions were in short supply for a long time. This senior class helped bring them back. Which is just as much of an accomplishment as taking UMBC to its first NCAA tournament.