SANTA BARBARA, Calif. – Five years ago, Caleb Porter arrived at the University of Akron with the task of rebuilding a program that had lost Ken Lolla, the most successful head coach in school history, to the University of Louisville.
To do that, Porter sought his first blue-chip prospect, a slick-footed midfielder from Texas by the name of Anthony Ampaipitakwong. The player did not know much about the school or even where Akron was, but Porter promised Ampaipitakwong that if he joined the Zips, he would be surrounded with other star players.
On Sunday evening on a field in Santa Barbara, Porter’s initial vision came true as Akron took home its first-ever national title by beating none other than Lolla and Louisville, 1-0, in the NCAA College Cup Final.
The long road that the Zips took to the championship did not come without many pitfalls. Along the way, they lost many talented players – such as Teal Bunbury – to Major League Soccer and tasted bitter disappointment – like losing to Virginia via penalty kick shootout in last year's final.
But through it all, Porter remained committed to his vision of bringing a title to Northeastern Ohio by playing an open and attacking-style of soccer that dictates the tempo by being absolutely dominant in possession.
[inline_node:323158]“In our program, we talk about winning the right way … and raising the bar for college soccer,” said Porter (right). “Hopefully, teams will be inspired by the way we play and our blueprint will spread … and more college teams will adopt our approach. Ultimately, that is what is best for the game.”
Central to that philosophy has been the development of Porter’s first star, Ampaipitakwong. A true No. 10, the diminutive playmaker has used his versatility and vision on the field to constantly shine and add an oomph to the Zips attack. Against Louisville, Ampaipitakwong started attacks with slick passes up the middle and out wide that were too much for the Cardinal defense to handle.
The success on the field in Santa Barbara was a stark contrast to the manner in which the Akron and Ampaipitakwong’s season ended in 2009. Limited to playing just the first half due to having suffered a series of injuries, the midfielder watched from the bench as the Zips came up short in the final.
Spurred by that crushing defeat, Ampaipitakwong turned his game up a notch and finished 2010 with three goals and 10 assists, best among Akron’s midfield. So, after beating the Cardinals, he could not help but get emotional about the culmination of a long journey with the Zips.
“Sitting on the sidelines last season was the hardest feeling ever,” Ampaipitakwong said. “And this year, it’s been amazing because I was able to give the guys everything that I had and it’s just an unbelievable feeling [to win the title]. … We knew this was our destiny.”
Ampaipitakwong and Porter will both look ahead to the future, but they will do so separately.
Porter will look to repeat this year’s feat with Akron next year, while Ampaipitakwong will head off to the MLS Combine (Jan. 8-11) and could potentially be picked in the first round of the MLS SuperDraft (Jan. 13).
With Ampaipitakwong’s Akron career done, Porter will need to replace his star with another. But after the match, all the head coach wanted to do was thank his first prospect.
“It’s amazing that he’s a senior and now we’re winning the national championship,” said Porter. “After the match, I embraced him and thanked him because he was the one who really got the ball rolling for us.”
Porter promised to bid adieu to Ampaipitakwong with one final gesture of gratitude: In the school’s send-off party for the team, the coach will dye his hair in his midfielder’s infamous black-and-gold style.
If Porter’s initial promise to Ampaipitakwong five years ago came true, then there’s no reason why Sunday night’s won’t.
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