Dec. 5, 2009

By John Perrotto
Special to

AKRON, Ohio – Ben Zemanski took a look around quaint Lee Jackson Field on Saturday while hugging his victorious teammates and took in the moment.

The senior midfielder on the University of Akron’s men’s soccer team is an Akron kid. He grew up in the northeast Ohio city and went to high school at Cuyahoga Valley Christian Academy before matriculating to the local university.

Thus, Zemanski could truly appreciate Akron’s 1-0 victory over Tulsa in a Division I quarterfinal playoff game, which advances the top-seeded Zips (23-0) to the semifinals of the College Cup against North Carolina (16-2-3) on Friday night at Cary, N.C.

And Zemanski could really appreciate the overflow crowd of 4,254 at Lee Jackson Field that easily set the school attendance record. The previous best of 2,806 set a week earlier when Akron defeated Stanford in a second-round match.

Akron’s athletic department added temporary bleachers that seated 1,800 behind one goal and fans stood 10 deep on a grade behind the other goal. The crowd was loud from the start, especially the student section that calls itself the “AK-Rowdies.”

“Our fans are always great but this was really something else,” Zemanski said. “It was fun to play in front of a crowd this big. The University of Akron has always had a great soccer tradition and a good following in this town but this took it to a whole new level today. It was great to see this many people at the game. It was a good feeling to take the field with that many people behind you.”

The Zips gave the fans something to remember as they qualified for the College Cup for just the second time in their 24 appearances in the NCAA Tournament.

“University of Akron soccer has always had a special niche in this community,” Zips coach Caleb Porter said. “That was one of the aspects that made this job so attractive when I came here. Our fans are great. They are always very supportive. It was really nice to be able to give more of them the opportunity to see this game.”

Lee Jackson Field is a very intimate place as it seats just 2,200 and Akron is 265-57-30 on their home field since it was dedicated in 1966. However, it lags behind the facilities of most of the nation’s top programs, especially in terms of amenities, most notable the lack of on-site locker rooms. On a day when the temperature dipped to 28 degrees, both teams could only huddle around portable heaters in tents at halftime on Saturday.
Akron officials have discussed making major upgrades to Lee Jackson and Porter believes that will happen in time.

“The administration has been very supportive of the soccer program during my four years here,” Porter said. “They’ve done everything you could as ask.”

When Akron meets North Carolina in the semifinals, the Tar Heels should have the crowd on its side. Cary is just 22 miles from the Chapel Hill campus but 530 miles from Akron.

“I think we’ll be more represented than you might think,” Porter said. “I think you’ll see Akron people coming out of the woodwork and finding a way to be there, whether it’s alumni, fans or students. We have very loyal fans and a good following.”

This year’s version of the Zips has given those fans a lot to cheer about. That isn’t lost on Zemanski.

“The whole town loves us now,” Zemanski said with a grin. “You can feel it. It’s special. We’ve build a great tradition and having the whole town behind us just adds to it. We’ve been building up to this for the four years (Porter) has been the coach and now we have a chance to win a national championship. That’s been our goal and the people of Akron will be excited if we bring it home next week.”