The postseason soccer game UMBC plays tomorrow will be its first since moving up to Division I in 1986. More than anyone involved with the Retrievers, Darius Taylor is looking forward to that milestone.
A senior defender, Taylor will start his 80th straight game tomorrow, when top-seeded and host UMBC begins the East Coast Conference tournament with an 11 a.m. match against Rider. Two-time champion Towson State plays Buffalo at 2 p.m., and the winners come back in Sunday's (1 p.m.) title match.
Taylor is a lean, speedy 6 feet 5 and rarely is beaten to a free ball. There's an artistic flair to his game, but the broad strokes he painted were overlooked in recent years. He made the All-State team as a sophomore and junior and figures to repeat as a first-team choice when the ECC all-stars are announced today, but the attention he'll get this weekend is new.
"The younger players are excited about this tournament, but I can't imagine anyone else appreciating the possibility of winning a championship more than me," Taylor said. "I've been around here four years, and I know it was a struggle to get to this point."
Born in Hawaii and raised in San Diego, Taylor moved to Severn with his mother in 1979, and was playing soccer year-round shortly thereafter. Meade High coaches tried to get him out for basketball, "but I was always playing indoor soccer at Myers Pavilion [in Brooklyn] on Friday nights." He's played for club teams throughout the region, traveling to Germany in 1986 with a group based in Prince George's County.
After earning All-Metro honors, Taylor represented a recruiting coup for the Retrievers, but he's the lone survivor from the class that entered UMBC in the fall of 1988. Taylor started a few games at stopper before coach John Ellinger moved him back to sweeper. He's been there ever since, through gradual improvement marked by records of 8-9-4, 9-8-1 and 11-9-0.
The Retrievers finished fifth in their ECC debut last year. This year they won the regular-season title for first-year coach Pete Caringi. He brought in a few new faces and an attacking system that gives Taylor more freedom, but also more responsibility.
"He's the one player we couldn't replace," Caringi said.
Taylor entered this season with career totals of six goals and six assists, and his four and three have helped UMBC to a school-record 63 goals. If the Retrievers (15-4-1) beat Rider tomorrow, they'll establish another mark for wins in a season.
"I think soccer is ready to take off here," said Taylor, a modern languages and linguistics major who would like a career as a translator. "He [Caringi] has a lot of influence and contacts. Even if he doesn't recruit great players, he's still going to draw the best out of you."
Taylor is the centerpiece in what might be college soccer's tallest team. Right back Bobby Wagner is 6-4, stopper Pete Eibner and attacking midfielder Jason Dieter are 6-2, and when reserve Tim Ryerson (6-5) is also in the penalty area trying to win a head ball, it creates havoc for a smaller opponent.
"Fourteen of our players are 6-foot or taller," Caringi said. "Every coach that's seen us has made a comment about that. I'd rather start games with a jump ball."
(seeds in parentheses) EAST COAST CONFERENCE at UMBC Saturday
UMBC (1) vs. Rider (4), 11 a.m.
Towson State (2) vs. Buffalo (3), 2
METRO ATLANTIC ATHLETIC CONFERENCE at Loyola Saturday
La Salle (2) vs. Fairfield (3), noon
Loyola (1) vs. Siena (4), 2
Consolation, 11 a.m.
PATRIOT LEAGUE at Navy Saturday
Lehigh (2) vs. Lafayette (3), 11 a.m.
Navy (1) vs. Army (4), 1:30
NJCAA REGION XX at Catonsville Saturday
Anne Arundel (5) vs. Rockville (1), 1
Essex (2) vs. Prince George's (3), 3