The 2009 Akron Zips soccer team ended the regular season undefeated and was un-scored-upon during the entire NCAA soccer tournament; however, they did not win the NCAA soccer title. While the Zips had always had a talented soccer team, making the NCAA tournament with regularity (and reaching the final in 1986) and never finishing lower than second in the MAC, many people felt that this was not only their best team ever, but perhaps one of the best in college soccer history. They swept through their the regular season allowing only seven goals in 25 matches while scoring 57, and were granted the number one seed in the NCAA tournament.
When they stormed through the opening three rounds past South Florida (2-0), Stanford (2-0) and Tulsa (1-0) to tie a record for the most consecutive wins (23, a record they shared with Coach Caleb Porter's 1997 Indiana team) to reach the Final Four, the anticipation of a first ever national championship continued to grow.
Their opponents were true soccer bluebloods, three teams from the ACC (with seven National titles between them), North Carolina, Wake Forest and Virginia. Worse yet, the Championship venue was right in the heart of ACC country in Cary, North Carolina.
Undaunted, the Zips faithful turned out in droves, convinced this would be the year their school would win its first national title in any sport. The opening round game was a nail biter against North Carolina where the Zips had plenty of chances but could not put the Tar Heels away as the game ended at 0-0 after two overtimes and went to penalty kicks. Luckily, the Zips converted more penalty kicks and went on to the final - versus five-time NCAA champion Virginia.
On a very cold and rainy December Sunday, the Zips looked confident with their soon-to-be Hermann trophy award winner Teal Bunbury to lead them. The match kicked off with another hard fought contest with strong defensive performances on both sides, especially from Virginia goalie Diego Restrepo (who, ironically, had transferred from South Florida after helping knock the Zips out of the 2007 NCAA tournament).
Once again neither team scored and it was going to come down to penalty kicks. After Zarek Valentin missed and Kofi Sarkodie hit the post, Akron was suddenly down 3-1 with only four PK’s remaining, and things looked bleak for Zips fans. But then freshman goalie David Meves made two outstanding saves and freshman Scott Caldwell made his kick giving real hope to the Zips faithful that a second round of penalty kicks was on the way.
A collective breath was held as one of the Zips most reliable penalty kick takers, Blair Gavin, lined up for his shot on goal.
Those hopes were dashed immediately and irrevocably as the kick sailed far over the crossbar, dragging the Zips dreams behind it. Gavin and several other players collapsed on the ground in disbelief as the Cavaliers celebrated and Zips fans sat in the cold rain in stunned silence.
Then, just to add a bit more cruelty to the moment, the ESPN color announcer, Kyle Martino, a former Virginia player gleefully announced on air (paraphrasing), "I stayed neutral the entire contest, and now I’m going to celebrate" as thousands of Zips fans slowly exited bemoaning a national title that was achingly close.
For long-suffering Zips fans, however, the story did have a happy ending as the Zips won the National title the following year in gorgeous Santa Barbara California under light skies and beautiful weather. It even came against the coach (Louisville’s Ken Lolla) who had abandoned them several years earlier, which in turn opened the door for Caleb Porter.
This year the first Zips player ever to be named to the US Men’s National team, DeAndre Yedlin, who joined the Zips the year after that National Championship, will compete for the World cup this summer in Brazil.
Play on Zips!