Kay Banjo and the UMBC Retrievers have been riding high in the NCAA tournament. They will face Virginia in a College Cup semfinal Friday (By Jonathan Newton — The Washington Post)

For 24 seasons, Pete Caringi has seen the quizzical looks and heard the dumbfounded questions.

“UMBC? What’s that? Who’s that?” he recalled Monday.

A few weeks ago, as the team bus pulled into Wake Forest’s complex for an NCAA tournament first-round match, one bystander asked another whom the Demon Deacons were playing.

“A team from somewhere in Maryland, I think.”

Caringi’s squad is not the University of Maryland. It’s not the University of Baltimore. It’s not UMKC (Missouri, Kansas City), UCLA or UNLV.

Yes, it’s a mouthful: the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. It’s also the home of the best storyline in the national tournament this year and for many years.

The Retrievers, a band of mostly in-state players overlooked or unappreciated by larger programs, have executed consecutive upsets against four traditional powers to book a ticket to the College Cup, soccer’s final four.

They will face 16th-seeded Virginia, another national titan, in a semifinal at 5 p.m. Friday (ESPNU) at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, N.C. The winner will face second-seeded UCLA or No. 11 Providence, another upstart, in Sunday’s final.

The Retrievers have not lost since the third week in October, a 10-game stretch in which they’ve conceded three goals, none in the NCAA tournament against Wake Forest, Maryland, Louisville and Creighton – teams with a combined 23 College Cup berths.

The improbable run has drawn unprecedented attention in American soccer circles, and in the Baltimore area as a whole, to a program that, until this year, had made four NCAA tournament appearances, won one tournament match in regulation time and never gone beyond the second round.

Pete Caringi (UMBC photo)

“I am not surprised where are we,” Caringi said. “I know people across the country are. It’s been building up to this the last few years. We’re a confident group.”

The Retrievers are three-time defending champions in the lightly regarded America East Conference. Last year, they boasted the best regular season record in the country (one defeat) before losing in the second round to Connecticut on penalty kicks.

This year, they were stuck in a rut in September. “The pressure of last year’s success was getting to us,” Caringi said. Since a 2-0 defeat at Navy, though, the Retrievers have torn through the schedule.

The surge included a second-round victory at Maryland, the mother ship of the state university system and a model for soccer excellence for two decades under Sasho Cirovski. Hundreds of UMBC students attended the 1-0 upset in College Park and, at the final whistle, stormed the field.

About the underdog role, Caringi said: “What we’ve done says a lot about the youth clubs and the high schools in the area. The big programs have got things we will never have. We don’t have the resources. What we have is chemistry. It’s about the players. We’d like to make our own little mark.”

Of the 27 players on the roster, 19 are from Maryland. Another is from Northern Virginia. Four Maryland-bred players joined UMBC after beginning their careers elsewhere: Towson (which closed its program two years ago), Maryland, Denver and North Carolina State.

Without the drawing power of major programs, Caringi has had to mine for overlooked recruits. And although he is not able land high school all-Americans and youth national team candidates, Caringi has been able to sign players who excelled on the elite club circuit and played alongside those untouchable recruits who went elsewhere. Translation: “We are not intimidated when we play these big teams,” Caringi said.

On campus, Caringi’s gang is catching up with the chess team.

Wait, what?

At a school without football, one NCAA men’s basketball appearance and middling status in lacrosse, UMBC’s chess masters are the school’s most decorated team. They are annual participants in the President’s Cup, also known as the chess final four.

Away from Catonsville’s athletic fields — and chess board — UMBC has gained a growing reputation for academics. Once a sleepy commuter school near BWI Airport, UMBC is now a math and technology magnet, a theme championed by university president Freeman Hrabowski, in his 23rd year.

Asked about his passion for soccer, Hrabowski replied: “I am a mathematician. I’m really called a mega-nerd. The students are teaching me about every sport. I’m a fan of my students and of Coach Pete Caringi.

“We’re known as an academic university. It’s a place for smart kids. And when you add the success of soccer, now it’s cool to be a student-athlete.”

Sophomore goalkeeper Billy Heavner (By Jonathan Newton — The Washington Post)

Sophomore goalkeeper Billy Heavner, one of the few non-Maryland natives, is one of the cool ones: He combines penalty kick-stopping abilities with a 4.0 grade-point average in pursuit of an economics degree.

If not for Hrabowski, Caringi said he probably would have left several years ago. One year, he received an offer to coach the Baltimore Blast, a pro indoor soccer team. The next year, another college program came after him.

“I had one foot out the door,” Caringi said of the Blast offer. “The president convinced me to stay.”

It has been a long road for Caringi, whose twang reveals deep East Baltimore roots. He was a star forward at the University of Baltimore and won the Division II national championship in 1975. He had a cup of coffee with the Washington Diplomats during the North American Soccer League’s heyday in the late ’70s.

As a coach, he excelled at Essex Community College and guided the Columbia-based Maryland Bays to the 1990 title in the American Professional Soccer League, a semipro place-holder between the NASL’s demise in 1985 and MLS’s launch in 1996. Caringi’s squad included U.S. national team forwards Jean Harbor and Phillip Gyau.

With the Bays on unstable financial ground, Caringi accepted the UMBC job.

“My first game, there were 20 people in the stands, 19 were family, we’re losing, and I am wondering, ‘What am I doing here?’ “

He had good teams, though: Only one losing season between 1991 and 2005. In 1999, in their first NCAA tournament, the Retrievers were unbeaten until falling at Duke, 4-3. Several players have been drafted by MLS teams, including his son Pete after last season, and midfielder Matt Watson started 22 matches for the Chicago Fire this year after two seasons with the Vancouver Whitecaps.

Many of Caringi’s former players, and hundreds of black-and-gold clad supporters, will gather outside of Raleigh on Friday for the program’s moment in the national spotlight.

The opponent is Virginia, which has won six NCAA titles, appeared in 34 consecutive tournaments and sent numerous players to MLS, European careers and the World Cup.

History says Virginia will advance. History has also been wrong about the unknown Retrievers for weeks now.

“You don’t know who we are today,” Caringi said, “but you will know who we are tomorrow.”


College Cup schedule

At WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, N.C.

Friday’s semifinals

UMBC (14-5-5) vs. No. 16 Virginia (12-6-3), 5 p.m. ET

No. 11 Providence (16-4-2) vs. No. 2 UCLA (13-4-5), 7:30 p.m.

Sunday’s final is at noon

All matches on ESPNU, ESPN3.com and WatchESPN