Commentary

Zips avenge '09 loss with title

Originally Published: December 12, 2010
By Mechelle Voepel | ESPN.com

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. -- There's a difference between being motivated and haunted. The Akron men's soccer team saw a national championship slip away on penalty kicks last year in the College Cup.

[+] EnlargeScott Caldwell
AP Photo/Mark J. TerrillScott Caldwell, left, scored the game winner for Akron.

It was the only loss in what was otherwise a near perfect season, and in the postmatch agony, Zips coach Caleb Porter got his point across: It hurts, but don't let this crush you. We'll come back and finish the job next year.

Which is exactly what Akron did at sun-drenched Harder Stadium near the Pacific Ocean on Sunday afternoon. Chilly as the weather may have been in Ohio, the Akron community probably felt the warmth all the way from the West Coast after the Zips' 1-0 championship-game victory against Louisville.

"It's our first one, it kind of breaks the ice," Akron's Zarek Valentin said of the Zips winning the school's first NCAA title and boosting the entire Mid-American Conference. "It gives the rest of the student body hope that we can keep progressing in all the sports.

"When people think about Akron, they hear LeBron James' name and that whole fiasco. But now it gives people a positive look: 'Oh, they have a pretty good soccer team.' It gives people a good feeling in the community."

This men's soccer season really did come down to the two best teams: No. 1 seed and unbeaten Louisville versus No. 3 seed Akron, the team that had come so close to winning last year.

But it's still fascinating how many storylines intertwined for this championship. It pitted Akron against the coach, Ken Lolla, who had spent 13 years building the Zips' program before being lured to lead Louisville in 2005.

It matched up several players who knew each other from years of playing club ball with and against each other. And two of them, who had been friends since they were in grade school, were on opposite ends of a dramatic play in the final minute Sunday.

A scramble ensued after a corner kick, during which Akron goalkeeper David Meves made a save but was taken away from the goal front. The ball got loose, and suddenly Louisville's Aaron Horton -- who had scored the winning goal in the Cardinals' previous two matches -- found himself with only one Akron man to beat. And that wasn't the keeper.

It was defender Chad Barson, who had played with Horton on the Ohio FC Mutiny club team for years. Horton might have just been too wide-open; he ended up putting a shot right in the middle, where Barson was able to deflect it away.

"I tried to take my chance again, and put it in the net," Horton said. "They made a good save off the line. That's the way it goes sometimes."

The game was soon over, with the Zips celebrating and Horton lying facedown in disbelief on the field. Barson had some words of consolation for Horton.

"I told him he'd had a tremendous year and done so much for his team," Barson said. "He knows he's a good player and how much work he put into it.

"When I saw him with the ball, a lot just raced through my head really quickly. I was on the line, but decided to take a couple of steps forward to cut off the angles better. You don't have much time to think, so it was just a gut feeling and I was able to get a foot on it."

Barson said he was sure if he hadn't done that, one of his teammates would have been able to back him up. But the truth is, he was the only Akron player really standing between Horton and the equalizer. It's indicative of the Zips' unity, though, that Barson was so certain that someone else could have made the play.

"It was a melee," Porter said of the final sequence in front of Akron's goal. "I turned around after it, and I couldn't do anything but just start laughing. Because I've been around this game long enough to know that when you're meant to win, you're going to win. When your team believes it, it's going to happen.

Chad Barson
AP Photo/Mark J. TerrillChad Barson came up with a big stop to preserve the win.

"Our team today believed so much, we were going to get the end result. I don't know how the ball didn't go in the goal. But it didn't."

The one ball all afternoon that did go into the goal came on the other end earlier in the second half.

As had been the case in the semifinal against Michigan, the Zips had chances in the first half but didn't quite close the deal. They did get some breaks, though, including an apparent handball against them that wasn't called.

So the half ended scoreless. Akron seemed to have control of play for much of the second half.

"We've been trying to evolve into doing that over the last several years," Porter said. "The last two years, we have done that in every single game we've played -- for the most part we've been able to control the game with our possession. And we did that again today."

The Zips nearly got on the scoreboard on a great chance by Darlington Nagbe in the 69th minute that rolled just wide of the goal after beating keeper Andre Boudreaux.

Boudreaux made six saves on the day, but he wasn't able to stop what proved to be the game winner: Scott Caldwell's unassisted goal on a rebound of his own shot in the 79th minute.

Caldwell, a sophomore midfielder, had not scored in his first 35 matches with Akron. But he now has scored in five of the past six.

"I mean --" Caldwell said, at first struggling for words as he couldn't stop smiling. "The last six or seven games, since the MAC tournament started, once I got my first one, that just gave me the confidence to keep going forward and looking for more opportunities to score. Really, there's just been some luck involved, too. The ball has just been bouncing my way. And that's what happened today."

The Zips were pretty much an "iron side" Sunday, making just one substitution and looking so fit they could have played all day.

Afterward, though, senior Anthony Ampaipitakwong said, "I'm exhausted, but it does not matter. Right now we can feel it, but during the game, none of us were tired."

Certainly, they get that from their coach, who was known in his playing days at Indiana as an intense, grind-it-out gamer. He has built a team, though, that combines his gutsy type of play with very creatively skilled players.

"As happy as I am with the win, I'm also proud of the way they played the game," Porter said. "That's something we talk about."

Porter has been such a success at Akron that a lot of folks figured he wouldn't stay there. Surely a bigger-named school would lure him away.

But Porter said he sold his players on the idea that they didn't need to go somewhere else to win a title. They could do it at Akron, a school that has made campus-wide facility upgrades in recent years.

"My biggest rush in doing this is my players and the relationships I have with them," Porter said. "I had been preaching to them that there's no better place than Akron. There's the saying that all that glitters isn't gold. And as much as people on the outside might not think Akron is much of a place, it is very good place. It's a nice city in which to raise a family, and soccer means something to people there. People care.

"Also, my mentor [Jerry Yeagley] stayed at Indiana his entire career. He had other opportunities, but in the end, he got so attached he could never leave it. And right now, that's kind of where I'm at."

It's where the Akron fans hope he stays. While they joyfully hugged each other Sunday in California, the Zips players' hearts were already back in Akron, home of champions.

Mechelle Voepel is a columnist for ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.

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Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.

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