BY ADAM SERRANO
The No.1 Louisville Cardinals take on the No.3 Akron Zips in today's College Cup Final (ESPN2, 4pm) in a match that features two , two programs eager to cement their legacies. Louisville, the upstart program that has finally reached the mountain top, while Akron is the perennial power seeks its elusive first title.
Central to the development of the two programs is Louisville head coach Ken Lolla.
The Cardinals head coach led Akron for 13 years, taking the Zips to the school's first number one ranking and six tournament bids before leaving to coach Louisville at the conclusion of the 2005 season. It was a move that allowed the Zips to bring in current head coach Caleb Porter. Since that move, Porter has been successful in taking the Zips to consecutive final appearances.
“It’s not a big surprise. Akron has played well; they were expected to be very good. I think the two best teams in the country are the ones left," said Lolla. "I don’t know if it’s right to call it ironic, but maybe appropriate would be the better word."
Before Lolla took over the Louisville program, the team had never reached the NCAA tournament, but now have reeled off four straight appearances. The undefeated Cardinals controlled most of the momentum in Friday's 2-1 victory against North Carolina and are seeking to be the first undefeated national champion since 1989.
Louisville may be undefeated, but has done so with few true star players. First team All-American forward Colin Rolfe has led the Cardinals attack with nine goals in the regular season and three in the post season. However, to earn a spot in Santa Barbara, the Cardinals have relied on others to step up. Among them, substitute forward Aaron Horton, who has consecutive game-winning goals with less than a minute in regulation.
To reach this point after the humble beginnings of the program represents just another step in the overall growth at Louisville.
”It’s the destination. It’s the final step. It’s not just from a championship standpoint; the real goal has been to allow these guys to achieve their potential as soccer player and as people," said Lolla. "Playing Akron, playing the best brings out the best in you. Certainly we’re vying for a national championship, but more than anything else we want to bring out the best in each other and reach for everything that we can become.”
At Lolla's former school, success has remained constant under his successor. Under Porter, Akron has become a factory for pro prospects and these riches in talent have translated to success on the field. Last season, Akron was undefeated throughout the season until coming up short in penalty kicks to Virginia in the College Cup Final. This season, the Zips have impressed and are led by a host of players who are considered potential MLS draft picks at season's end.
In the Zips 2-1 victory against Michigan on Friday, their talent proved too much for the Wolverines. Defenders like Zarek Valentin were quick to cut off passes and launch their own passes forward for attackers like star forward Darlington Nagbe.
Perhaps what has been most impressive about this current edition of the Zips has been their ability to overcome adversity. Whether, it was a shock loss to Cleveland State during the season or falling behind early to Michigan in the semifinal, the Zips have remain composed and focused on their final goal.
"We’re the No. 3 seed, so we’re the underdog so i’s almost like the tables have turned in some ways," said Porter. "Last year we were the No. 1 seed and undefeated, and now we’re the No. 3 seed and the pressure is off us.
"We get to just go out and have fun and play. We have the opportunity to show the country what we’re about – our brand – and I think you’re going to see a very loose group tomorrow.”
Though there are a number of rich story lines surrounding a potential Zips NCAA championship, what could be most significant is that the Zips have the rare chance to bring a title to North East Ohio. A place where sporting failures have become the norm.
“It would mean a lot in Ohio, in Northeast Ohio we don’t have to many great teams," said midfielder Perry Kitchen. "For us to win would be amazing, the community would go nuts.”