UMBC's Philippe Bissohong has risen from walk-on to defensive standout

Stepping up his game

Soccer

November 10, 2007|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,[Sun reporter]

UMBC's shutdown defender this season came out of a physical education class once taught by Retrievers soccer coach Pete Caringi.

It's an incongruity that still amazes - and amuses - the veteran coach.

"Philippe was in my class, and he was a good player," the longtime UMBC coach said of Philippe Bissohong. "But it was a 0 percent chance that he'd be such an impact player at a Division I level."

In the spring of 2006, when Bissohong walked on to Caringi's team, there was little about his game to suggest he would be a contributor for the Retrievers, much less one of the better defenders in America East.

Yet a year and a half later, Bissohong has completed one of the more improbable journeys on any college campus. His meteoric rise from unheralded walk-on to candidate for Defender of the Year in his conference is the stuff of legend. It dovetails nicely with the return to prominence of Caringi's nationally recognized program.

A year after the Retrievers went 5-9-3 without a shutout, they blanked 10 teams this season. Seeded fifth in the conference tournament, they'll face fourth-seeded Hartford in a 6 p.m. quarterfinal match tonight in West Hartford, Conn.

As a senior fullback who grew up in Cameroon's soccer-rich culture, Bissohong has beaten the odds to play a major role.

"The odds are off the board," Caringi said. "If he's not in my [PE] class, he goes here four years and gets a degree and never plays Division I soccer."

Bissohong, the youngest of four children, moved with his family from Cameroon to Silver Spring in 1998 when he was 13. He became a high-scoring, creative forward at Springbrook High as a junior but lost most of his senior year when fall sports programs were curtailed during the sniper attacks in Prince George's County.

He decided to attend UMBC because of academics and finances, sacrificing a chance to play soccer at an out-of-state school. He became a fan of the university's soccer team right away.

By his junior year, after taking Caringi's class, he finally had the nerve to ask about a tryout.

"It was hard [to walk on] because they don't know you," Bissohong said. "So you have pressure to prove yourself. That was the difficulty I had, just that pressure of being on top of my game all the time. But they treated me really well, and I felt part of the team."

It helped that UMBC had lost eight seniors and had holes to fill. It didn't take long before the rest of the team recognized his potential.

"We had seen him around, but nobody knew anything about him," junior goalkeeper Steve King said. "We had five games that spring, and through each game, you could see him getting better and better. But back then, nobody ever would have thought that he would become as big and as important a person on our team, especially in the back, as he did."

Caringi was equally taken with his walk-on find.

"He would just amaze me every time he'd be out there. Anytime we competed, he would do well, so I was thinking this kid's got a chance to make the team," the coach said. "Then it went from making the team to actually playing."

Caringi used him at a defensive midfielder last season and occasionally on the back line. After his junior season, Bissohong, 22, was moved permanently to fullback.

This season, he has defended the opponent's top striker so well that the Retrievers posted shutouts in 10 of their 18 games, including in seven of their eight wins. He started every game and played more minutes (1,598) than anyone except King.

At the end of team's final practice of the regular season, Caringi addressed the team and talked of how remarkable Bissohong's story was. Then he had the 6-foot-2, 185-pound senior take the coin flip for the last regular-season game.

"He's well respected by the players," Caringi said. "And he's so level-headed. He's no different today than the first day I met him."

Bissohong still pays his way at UMBC and will graduate in December with a degree in information systems. He will have left his mark in soccer, however.

"Phil's a quiet guy, but he leads by example," King said. "He never gets beat. ... He was such a diamond in the rough to find. I feel we're such a better team with him in the back."

ken.murray@baltsun.com

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