KENT: Just a day after upsetting No. 18 Rutgers, the Kent State football team turned its full attention to rival Akron.
Upon arrival for meetings on Sunday, the players and coaches were still feeling the high of the program’s first win over a ranked opponent in 23 tries, a 35-23 victory over the Scarlet Knights.
But by the time they left, Rutgers was a distant memory and the Golden Flashes were focused on the rival Zips.
Everywhere the eye could see, laminated “Beat Akron” signs were taped on walls, reminding everyone of the next goal — maintaining the coveted Wagon Wheel trophy that KSU (7-1, 4-0 Mid-American Conference) has had in its possession the past two seasons thanks to victories over UA (1-8, 0-5).
“No matter who’s doing well and who’s struggling coming into this game, it’s a throw-the-records-out kind of game,” KSU coach Darrell Hazell said. “For any type of rivalry game, records mean little and you know that you have to play as hard as you possibly can.”
For proof of how important today’s game is to Kent State, consider the lengths to which Hazell has gone to emphasize the significance of beating the Zips. The laminated signs just went up this week, but a constant “Beat Akron” presence has been in the football office for all to see since last winter.
Just outside the door of Hazell’s office is an authentic wooden wagon wheel mounted to the wall and an electric “BEAT AKRON” clock that has counted down the days, hours, minutes and seconds until today’s 2 p.m. kickoff at Dix Stadium.
The clock was easy to have made and installed. The wheel, however, took some time to secure. The search began last winter while Hazell roamed around the country on the recruiting trail.
“I started looking when I was down north of Columbus recruiting [offensive lineman] Reno Redo [from Pataskala’s Watkins Memorial High],” Hazell said. “I had some time to kill in between the school visit and the home visit, a little time before he got home from school.”
So Hazell drove around, figuring the surrounding farms sitting on acres of land were a prime area for an old wagon wheel.
“I finally stumble onto a guy’s house, and I see literally 75 of them,” Hazell said. “He’s got them as decorations all over his place. He was taking out the trash and I pull over, get out of the car and start talking to the guy. We talked for about 20 minutes, and he’s walking me around the farm pointing, ‘OK, there’s one, there’s one.’ ”
But Hazell left empty handed. The wheels he’d spotted were made of steel and cost too much. Hazell did end up snagging the 6-foot-5, 250-pound Reda, who ultimately became a member of the Flashes’ 2012 freshman class.
The search for the wheel continued.
Enter Casey Wolf, the Flashes’ former director of operations. With Hazell having spent months searching for the perfect stand in for the real trophy, it dawned on Wolf that his wife might have a connection to land one.
“My wife grew up in Burton, which is in Amish country,” said Wolf, who now works as a territory manager for Wilson Sporting Goods in Michigan, but still roots for the Flashes from afar. “One of her baby sitters was an Amish woman named Suzanne.”
Suzanne didn’t have a home telephone or cell phone, so Jen Wolf wrote her a letter explaining that Hazell was looking for a wagon wheel and wondered if she could help.
“A week later, Jen gets a letter back and Suzanne says, ‘This is when you can call me at work, here’s the number,’ ” Casey Wolf said. “So, a week later my wife calls her and it turns out Suzanne’s brother and father repair buggies. After two weeks of chasing it, we finally connected with Suzanne’s brother at their farmhouse and went in and bought a wagon wheel for 30 bucks.”
Wolf has a new job in another state, but he and his family will be in the stands for today’s game. And he still says “we” when speaking about the Flashes, enjoying their success this season as much as anyone. Wolf’s not the only one.
The Flashes’ recent success has become something that former players are bragging about. In the middle of fielding questions about the Baltimore Ravens this week, former KSU quarterback and current Browns kick returner/wide receiver Josh Cribbs was asked about his alma mater defeating Rutgers.
“It didn’t really surprise me that they beat Rutgers, it’s how bad they beat them — on their Homecoming,” Cribbs said. “It all goes to the coach up there, he’s doing a really good job turning the program around. They’re 7-1 right now — that’s pretty good. But we still gotta beat Akron.”
Stephanie Storm can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Kent State blog at http://www.ohio.com/flashes. Follow her on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/SStormABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.