From time to time when he wears a UMBC soccer shirt out in Baltimore, Billy Heavner still gets asked about the 2014 team that came within one win of playing for a national championship.
While that run doesn’t get the recognition that UMBC men’s basketball did beating No. 1 Virginia as a 16 in 2018, it was every bit as unlikely, especially with mid-way through the season.
Heavner was on the bench for the first nine games of the season. They had posted a 3-4-2 (WLD) record when head coach Pete Caringi Jr. made a change in goal and gave Heavner a shot.
“We were straight up bad for the beginning of the year and then kind of made it to the Final Four,” Heavner said. “We always joked about if we were playing football or basketball we would all be celebrities.”
Mamadou Kansaye, a close friend of Heavner’s to this day who was the captain of that team, did become a minor celebrity in the soccer world a few years later when he scored a goal for Christos FC in a U.S. Open Cup game against D.C. United. Heavner said the last time he went into the Maryland liquor store that gave the team its name, Kansaye got the VIP treatment.
“He’s a legend there still,” Heavner said.
The underdog spirit that propelled Christos on their magical Open Cup run in 2017 and captivated soccer fans across the country was very much alive three years earlier on a team of mostly local guys with some non-Marylanders like Heavner mixed in.
“We definitely had a very big chip on our shoulder and that drove us, but we didn’t lack confidence,” Heavner said. “I mean we really felt every game we’re going out there, we’re gonna win.”
Wake Forest, Maryland, Louisville and Creighton all fell victim to the Retrievers en route to that year’s College Cup. The only goal they conceded would prove to be the fatal one from Philadelphia native Darius Madison, who transferred to UMBC the following fall. Madison’s goal for Virginia in the 5th minute was the only goal the Hoos scored that weekend en route to a national championship.
In an alternate universe maybe Madison transfers to UMBC a season earlier and the goal goes in against Virginia.
“There was a foul there before that and then Darius scores a goal and nine months later he’s our forward,” Heavner said. “Darius was a special player. If he was on the other side of the ball he might have changed it for us.”
Though they didn’t go all the way, the tournament run did put Heavner and several of his teammates on the map with scouts at the next level. Three years later, Heavner was here in Philadelphia on trial with the Bethlehem Steel when an opportunity opened up with Minnesota United. After a short stint with the first-year MLS club, he signed a contract with MLS to become the pool goalkeeper, where he had to be ready at a moment’s notice for any teams short a keeper.
“A lot of it comes down to timing and I got pretty fortunate with getting out to Minnesota when they’re in a tough way and impressing the right people, I guess,” he said. “So, yeah, I mean it was a cool experience. It’s a lot better in the day-to-day than what I’m doing right now.”
That’s putting his finance degree to good use in Baltimore, not too far from the campus where he made a name for himself as a kid from Pennsylvania who was cut from the academy team at PA Classics and didn’t even earn a starting spot at Hempfield High School until former D.C. United goalkeeper Travis Worra had moved on to college.
Brought into the fold of a team with 19 of 27 players hailing from Maryland (one of the other Pennsylvania players, interestingly enough, was current Union II goalkeeper Todd Morton in his one season with the team before transferring to Delaware), Heavner felt at home playing the underdog role.
“I would say we were outmatched in every game in the Final Four run,” Heavner said. “It came down to the work ethic, the culture and really the commitment to each other. The level of accountability with that team is something I likely never will experience again.”
Just last week Heavner was on a Zoom call with players from that team, catching up on life and reminiscing about their time together playing for a school and a program so often in the shadow of the University of Maryland up the road in College Park.
“I also think we just got lucky, we just got along well,” he said. “We really really liked each other. We could have been doing anything, we could have been playing FIFA, we could have been playing pickup basketball. It was just a competitive group who was there to fight for each other.”