Dec. 10, 2009

Akron: Rubber City's Finest Burning Up Road To Cary

By Kevin Scheitrum

Nineteen-ninety seven was, for a number of reasons, a strange year for Caleb Porter.

A senior captain at Indiana - the second-ever three-year captain for the vaunted Hoosiers program - he finished the year as the runner-up in the Hermann Award voting and as a member of a team that set the NCAA single-season win streak record, only to lose to UCLA in the national semifinals.

Two weeks ago, Porter was on the Akron sidelines, 12 years after that record was first set, to watch this year's Zips squad burn through its 23 straight game to tie the record and earn a spot in this weekend's College Cup.

"I told my team that that `97 team was one of the best teams in the history of college soccer, but no one will ever remember that team because we never won a national championship," Porter, the fourth-year coach at Akron, said. "It's not important that they broke the record. What's important is we win a national championship."

When top-seeded Akron meets North Carolina in Cary, N.C. on Friday at 7:30 p.m. (ET), the Zips stand just two wins away from finishing the most successful - numerically, at least - season in the 51-year of the D-I Men's Soccer championship and earning the first-ever national title for any Akron sport. Behind them are 23 straight wins. Not just regular wins, either. Demolitions. Scorched-Earth type of wins that have seen the Zips outscore their opponents 58-7 on the year, post a 0.30 goals against average - fourth-best in NCAA history - along with a school-record 17 shutouts, while out-shooting opponents nearly 4:1.

Thus far in the Tournament, the Zips have posted a 5-0 edge in scoring through its three games. But ahead of them, if they do end up reaching the final, are two teams from the best conference in college soccer. With three teams in the College Cup - Akron, from the MAC, is the lone exception - no matter who wins in the other semifinal between Wake Forest and Virginia, at least one ACC team will play in Sunday's final.

And for Akron to prove that it has arrived as a national power, as something more than a one-year wonder, it'll have to show it belongs among three teams that come from a conference that's produced three of the last four national champs, Porter said.

Porter's now in his eighth overall College Cup, after three as a player and four more as an assistant at Indiana, winning three of them. But that experience in 1997 represents the harsh simplicity athletic memory: the Machiavellian notion that no amount of success will ever matter unless it ends with a championship.

And it's partly because of that experience that, somehow, a team that has barely even come close to losing this year feels like no one's taking them seriously yet.

"They've remained humble, and I still don't they believe they're as good as they can be," Porter said. "I think this team's been waiting or the opportunity to showcase this program, to gain a little respect. People think that this is an aberration, lightning in a bottle, a flash in the pan. I'm hoping we can prove people wrong."

"This has been my dream for a long time, to be able to go there and showcase our team and let the world see how we play," said junior Hermann Award semifinalist Teal Bunbury. "We're not going in there being happy we're in the College Cup."

And what shouldn't be lost, win or lose, is what Porter's accomplished in just his fourth year at Akron. When he arrived, there was tradition in the program, certainly, but a tradition that didn't include a single national championship. So it was Porter's job, when he came on after the signing period in 2006, to convince recruits that they'd change that - that if they committed, they'd take the program to heights it hadn't ever touched.

His next three classes ranked in the top five in recruiting, with the 2007 and '08 classes hitting No. 5 and this year's incoming crew topping out at No. 1. His first-ever recruit, Ben Zemanski, is the lone senior on this squad.

"Caleb has a unique way of recruiting," said junior midfielder and Hermann semifinalist Anthony Ampaipitakwong. "He can reel you in. He has a formula that I bought into. I trusted him when I came in."

And in doing so, he's assembled a team of nearly unrivaled talent. This time of the year, so many stories revolve around the heart of a team, the ability to squeeze everything out of barely enough. There's no shortage of heart on Akron, but there's a surplus of ability.

Bunbury leads the nation in scoring, with 17 goals, and the team in points, with 39 total. Five other players have tallied at least 13 points on the season, with Darlington Nagbe at 23, Ampaipitakwong at 21, team assist-leader (with 11 on the year) Michael Nanchoff at 21 and Blair Gavin and Kofi Sarkodie at 13.

"It's just all across the field, there's just so much talent," Bunbury said. "Offensively and defensively, you have top-notch players. At goalkeeper, too, of course. It's a pleasure to play with these guys. It makes everyone's job so much easier when everyone's on the same page."

And it's looked, so often this year for Akron, easy. But now, on a stage that some people call the biggest stage in American soccer, amateur or professionally, Akron has the chance to make this season something more: legendary.

"Going into the Tournament, we acted as if this was the season we were preparing for," Porter said. "We were excited to be the No. 1 seed in the Tournament, but we were gonna act like it's another day at the office.

"We're gonna continue to believe that we can win this thing," he continued. "I don't want to take away from my players the enjoyment of the experience. A lot of players, and some coaches never get the opportunity to get back, and they take it all in and smell the roses. But we can't forget why we're there. We're there to win a national championship."