Bringing back the Retrievers

UMBC's Zimmerman takes winding road to again stand among NCAA lacrosse elite

May 18, 2007|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,Sun reporter

What did the UMBC president say in the Retrievers' locker room before their win at Maryland on Sunday?

"Be resilient," Freeman Hrabowski said. "If you get knocked down, get right back up."

The guy alongside Hrabowski knew exactly what he meant.

En route to steering the men's lacrosse team to a high-water mark for UMBC athletics, Don Zimmerman suffered a fall from grace at one of the sport's premier programs; found another head coaching job, albeit with fewer resources; beat the budgetary bushes for support; and saw his Retrievers rise, then stumble and rise again.

UMBC's opening-round win over the Terps wasn't just the program's first in NCAA play since it took the Division II title in 1980. It was the first time any Retrievers team had advanced in an NCAA Division I championship.

Zimmerman has been around too many blocks, seen too much, to exhale now. A Sunday quarterfinal win over Delaware would put his team in front of possibly 50,000-plus people at M&T Bank Stadium in the NCAA semifinals May 26.

"We've arrived?" Zimmerman said. "I don't buy into that. You don't ever arrive. When you arrive, the journey's over. Then, where do you go?"

Zimmerman, 54, has had a unique ride.

With usual suspects Princeton and Virginia eliminated and Syracuse missing the tournament, only two of the eight remaining coaches have NCAA Division I titles on their coaching resumes.

Zimmerman and Dave Pietramala won titles as players and coaches at Johns Hopkins. Pietramala returned the Blue Jays to the top in 2005. He played for Zimmerman, who coached Hopkins to NCAA titles in 1984, '85 and '87.

The program lost momentum, and Zimmerman resigned in 1990 after a 6-5 season.

The 20th anniversary of his most recent NCAA championship coincides with the 40th season of UMBC lacrosse.

On University Parkway, he had legacies on the field and octogenarian alums in the stands. In Catonsville, Zimmerman got a second chance at a school that had no NCAA berths and just three winning seasons to show for its first 13 seasons in Division I.

Athletic director Charlie Brown found the money to give the Retrievers 12.6 scholarships, the NCAA maximum. They play on an artificial turf surface second to none. Ground will be broken next month for a new field house at UMBC Stadium that will include locker rooms for men's lacrosse and seven other teams.

"We're using the same locker room we had when we won the Division II title in 1980. The only thing different is a coat of paint," said Joe Gold, a former player who represented alumni on the selection panel that chose Zimmerman. "You never hear him complain. Every coach and fundraiser says, `The more you give, the better we're going to be.' But when Zim asks for help, you know he'll appreciate whatever you can give."

Zimmerman has two full-time assistants but began at UMBC in the fall of 1993 with none. An early hire was Ed Stephenson, who later started a team at Binghamton from scratch.

"We were 3-9 my first year at UMBC, but I saw how patient he was," Stephenson said. "We just needed to get some marquee guys in."

Zimmerman's fifth UMBC team, the first that included seniors he recruited, reached the 1998 NCAA tournament. The Retrievers returned the next season, but from 2000 to 2005, they were a model of mediocrity, going 37-43.

"Was I surprised we were unable to sustain it? No," Zimmerman said. "Were we disappointed? Yes. The state of college lacrosse right now, things like that are going to happen."

Zimmerman reinvented his recruiting wheel, as this roster bears little resemblance to the 1998 and '99 teams, which were loaded with veteran talent from the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association A Conference.

The UMBC defense starts Travis Begay, a late bloomer from San Diego; Bobby Atwell of Southern; and Matt Kresse, who's from Long Island, N.Y., power Ward Melville. Zimmerman's rotation includes 13 players who weren't around two years ago. Begay is one of four junior college transfers, Atwell is among five sophomores who contribute, and Kresse is one of four freshman regulars.

In an era when some coaches orchestrate every touch, Zimmerman is a contrarian. Senior attackmen Andy Gallagher and Drew Westervelt call the offensive sets for all those newcomers.

"He's learned to give us freedom during the game, let us freestyle a bit," Gallagher said.

When freshman Cayle Ratcliff converted a 50-yard pass from sophomore goalie Jeremy Blevins into one of 2007's must-see goals Sunday, Zimmerman didn't flinch.

"The pass that Blevins made is not something we designed, and that's why I loved it," Zimmerman said. "I always applaud gutsy play, as long as it's not selfish play."

He added: "I was much more conservative, much more in control at Hopkins, than I am now."

But one thing hasn't changed.

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