Last summer, the UMBC men's soccer program looked to have many more questions than it did answers.
Q1. With no seniors, where would the leadership come from?
Q2. With the exception of a young Andrew Bulls, who would produce offensively?
Q3. Who would help Chris Williams defend the middle of the field?
Q4. Could a high school fullback really compete as a freshman Division I goalkeeper?
These questions could have elicited typical coach-speak answers, but head coach Pete Caringi, his staff and players responded emphatically to produce a brilliant 9-0-0 month of September. That earned UMBC a national ranking, and despite some missteps in October, the Retrievers (14-6-0) nearly hit a crescendo in November, winning two America East tournament games on the road before falling in the title contest at Stony Brook.
"It was very gratifying to watch a team - a young team that's picked last - just come together as a group and find success and ways to win," Caringi said.
With an eye to the future, the Retriever mentor had his team stay on the field to watch the Seawolves celebrate the America East title.
"I kept this group out on the field to kind of get the feeling of Stony Brook's celebration and the disappointment of knowing that we were only one game away from going to the NCAA Tournament, and let that kind of sink in," Caringi said. "Hopefully that's sort of a motivation to work even harder to get past that championship game."
A1. The Retriever mentor identified then-juniors Levi Houapeu, John Paul Waraksa and Chris Williams as team leaders, and that trio may emerge as team captains for 2010. None of the three is particularly vociferous, but lead by their work rate in practice and in games and set great examples for the dozen underclassmen on the '09 squad.
The questions are different heading into 2010. They do not involve personnel as much as intangible elements of success.
"I think that complacency is a big concern anytime you have a group that's coming back that had success," Caringi said. "It's a natural tendency, but I feel that our players have gotten the message because we drilled it into them because we haven't really accomplished our goals yet."
It doesn't hurt that more talent arrived in waves in the offseason.
"That's why I'm really excited about this team," Caringi said. "We got some kids from very good programs transferring in that want to play for us and we have a good freshman class, so I really don't believe we're going to be complacent. If you are, you won't be playing."
A2: Among others, 2009 ECAC Offensive Player of the Year, America East Midfielder of the Year and the nation's leading scorer, senior Levi Houapeu. Houapeu produced the fifth-most points in a single season in school history (43) with 15 goals and 13 assists.
The native of the Ivory Coast struggled through an injury-marred 2008 campaign but used an outstanding summer of 2009 to jumpstart his fall. He was equally effective as the catalyst of the Retriever offense, highlighted by a three-assist effort against St. Francis (Pa.), or a finisher, as he produced hat tricks in wins over Drexel and Albany. Houapeu also proved to be equally hard to guard when combined up front with Bulls or as an attacking wing midfielder.
It is hard to imagine the nation's leading scorer being overshadowed by anyone, yet alone his own teammate. But Andrew Bulls, a junior, was so dynamic in the first half of the season, scoring 14 goals through the first 11 games, including a school-record eight game-winning goals in that span and was named the national player of the week for the first week of the season by multiple organizations. The local product was a terror on free kicks, yet he maintained an unselfish nature to his game with 11 assists.
"They were as good as any two I've seen in the country, and they had great chemistry together," Caringi said. "Their confidence improved every game. It's very difficult and it becomes very frustrating if you're a goal scorer to try to match the previous year and to match the goals and to match the expectations. They just need to go out and play up to their ability and have the same kind of fun that they had last year. They'll also have some more help up there. I don't think they'll have to play 90 minutes of every game, and that will make them fresher down the stretch."
Amazingly, Houapeu and Bulls will be joined in the offensive third of the field by two others with extensive collegiate goal-producing experience. Senior Danny Shannon was a Second-Team All-Patriot League selection at American University in 2009, and seven of his 10 collegiate goals have been game-winners. The Frederick, Md., native has added eight career assists and may be well-suited for a central attacking midfield slot.
Junior Nirav Kadam transferred from UNC-Greensboro and matriculated at UMBC last spring. At 5-4, the diminutive playmaker was a brilliant postseason performer for the Spartans, earning All-Southern Conference Tournament honors in 2007 and scoring goals in all three of UNCG's NCAA Tournament games in their run to the round of 16 a year later.
Junior Kingsley Onwuka, a local product from Kenwood High School, can also play up front or compete as a wide midfielder. The Nigerian native who came to UMBC from CCBC-Essex has breakaway speed and adds an element of height to the attacking group.
Like his father, freshman Pete Caringi is a natural target player who had an outstanding summer and could challenge for playing time in his initial campaign.
"I think we're much deeper this year than we were at any time last year," Caringi said.
The competition will be fierce for starting positions in the Retriever midfield. Senior Dustin Dzwonkowski has been a valuable asset during his tenure and stepped up in dramatic fashion when needed most in 2009. The 6-foot-3 wide midfielder recorded an assist and scored the game-winning goal in a critical 2-1 victory at Boston U. and added two goals in a conference win just three days later against Albany.
Junior Andy Streilein earned 14 starts for UMBC on the left flank in 2009 after a solid freshman campaign at the University of Delaware. Sophomore Ben Hanson, a high school teammate of Houapeu's, transferred from Loyola, where he earned a spot on the MAAC All-Rookie team in 2008. Hanson could play wide or inside in UMBC's midfield alignment.
Sophomores Milo Kapor and Mark Lubetkin both earned a great deal of playing time as part of UMBC's kiddie corps in 2009. Kapor started 17 of the first 18 games but contributd his best strike as a reserve, when he blasted home the game-winning goal in the America East semifinal win at New Hampshire. Lubetkin started the final eight games as a central midfielder and also had an impactful playoff run, scoring first goals in wins at Binghamton and UNH.
The aforementioned Onwuka and Shannon could also see action at midfield.
Senior John Paul Waraska is looking to reprise his role as a defensive midfielder in 2010. Waraksa, who earned two postseason citations for his work in the classroom, leads current Retrievers with 54 games played and made a career-high 19 starts in 2009. He excels at winning balls in the air and often triggers UMBC's counter-attacks.
Like Kapor and Lubetkin, sophomore Dave Vaeth earned invaluable minutes last season and served as a fine complementary player to Waraksa in the middle of the field.
Senior Sean Rothe started all 20 games last season at wide midfield or as a marking back, but a knee injury may curtail his ability to compete in 2010.
UMBC's defense allowed one goal or less in 12 of the first 14 games last season. The backline faltered down the stretch as senior captain Chris Williams suffered a leg injury on Oct. 10 and missed the final five games of the regular season. The Retrievers' staunchest central fullback returned for the America East Tournament and should be a fixture in the starting 11 in 2010.
A3. Sophomore Liam Paddock efficiently patched the hole in the center of the UMBC backline and filled in admirably for Williams in mid-to-late October. Named to the America East All-Rookie team, the English native is skilled, aggressive yet disciplined and a vocal communicator.
UMBC's starting marking backs of junior Vince Savarese and Jason McCarron both had excellent campaigns in 2009. The tenacious Savarese was named the team's Most Improved Player, as he started all 20 games and led the team in minutes played. McCarron displayed good speed at the position, but a leg injury cut his season short before the America East Tournament.
Freshman Travis Dennis transferred to UMBC from Clemson and will challenge for playing time at marking back. Two additional freshmen, Scottish native Daniel Welsh and local productSpencer Williams, are highly regarded and could press for minutes early in their tenures.
A4: Sophomore Phil Saunders did have extensive club experience in the nets, but even Coach Caringi was awestruck by the former Perry Hall fullback in 2009. Saunders posted six shutouts and a 1.22 goal- against average and earned All-Rookie team honors from America East. He was dynamic at times and was arguably the best player on the field in 1-0 wins over Towson and Loyola.
But the Retrievers have two other goalkeepers who are vying for playing time as well. Junior Dan Louisignau was unable to compete last fall due to a shoulder injury, but the former Virginia Cavalier demonstrated top form in the spring. Junior Miguel Calderón served as Saunders' backup in 2009 but waged a great battle to win the starting position last preseason.
"Few times in my career have I had three very good goalkeepers, all of whom could play," Caringi said. "They all compete hard, challenge one another and understand the battle is to be won on a daily basis. Phil is our returning starter and will be given every opportunity to retain that position."
If any of the players even thought about backing off of their training and preparation habits, one look at the 2010 schedule would snap them back to reality. The Retrievers will compete against five teams (Bucknell, Loyola, Penn State, Stony Brook and Wofford) which competed in last season's NCAA College Cup and will also face all four local Division I programs, ironically with all four contests occurring on the road.
"This year, we have the toughest schedule that we have had in my time at UMBC," Caringi said. "We will play three national powerhouses - Penn State, FDU and Bucknell - all on the road. We want this group to go on road and play the best competition .Playing nationally ranked teams on the road will only make us a better team come conference time in America East."
The America East Conference has become one of the strongest men's soccer leagues, from top to bottom, in the nation. Stony Brook and UMBC were selected 7-8 in the 2009 preseason poll and ended up playing in the conference's championship match. Each of the eight league teams has recorded a top-three finish and/or an appearance in the title game in the last three seasons.
"I like to think that America East soccer is a lot like the NFL," Caringi said. "Every game is a tough game, there are no easy wins and it is impossible to pick who will come out on top."
Expectations are quite high for the 2010 Retrievers. The team is no longer a bunch of unknowns as they were a year ago. Coach Caringi will be a very interested observer as to how they will handle the situation.
"This team has a lot of potential on paper," Caringi said. "At the end of the day, it will come down to the players' attitudes and how much they really want it. As a coach, you like to be in a situation like this.
"As good a year as it  was, we still didn't win a championship," the coach continued. "If we have all these players, let's see how good we can be. In 2010, I want to be the best team we can be in November as opposed to September."