Fabio Pereira struck the ball perfectly. Thinking the Michigan junior midfielder, fresh off a hat trick against Niagara, had tied Sunday’s NCAA second-round game in the 86th minute, Pereira’s teammates leaped from the bench in unison.
What they didn’t see was David Meves, the University of Akron’s senior goalie, launch himself toward the upper left corner of the net. If keepers could fly, Meves had wings.
“Yeah, I got up there a little bit,” Meves admitted.
Michigan coach Chaka Daley thought Pereira’s shot was going in the top pocket. But then he saw Meves reach it with his top hand.
UA coach Caleb Porter called it “a world-class save.” The Zips’ 2-1 victory was preserved. Four more victories will bring them another national title.
That won’t happen without more spectacular plays from Meves. The free-kick score he gave up to the Wolverines’ James Murphy was only the seventh goal allowed by Meves in 21 games. Of those seven, two have come on free kicks, one on a corner kick and one on a penalty kick. Only three times in 21 games has an opponent broken through the Zips’ defense and gotten the best of Meves.
But each week the pressure mounts, there are more talented players to face. Sunday’s game against Creighton could be the fifth-seeded Zips’ last at home, unless fourth-seeded Connecticut is knocked out.
Meves has been facing such pressure for four years. Sunday was his 14th NCAA Tournament game. The Zips reached the College Cup final his freshman and sophomore years, winning the championship in 2010. Last year, they were eliminated in the round of 16. Departing Dec. 15 for a Major League Soccer job, Porter has been saying for weeks that anything less than a championship this season will be a failure.
That’s a lot for the Zips to handle. Especially for Meves, who must remain sharp even when his teammates are retaining possession and he has nothing to do. Michigan’s 12 shots ran UA’s opponents’ total to 161 in 2012. (By comparison, the Zips have 395.)
That’s a lot of dead time when Meves could be thinking about his professional chances or what his buddies from suburban Chicago are doing or what he’s going to order at Penn Station after the game.
“People say it’s easy to play at Akron because we don’t give up many chances,” Porter said. “I think it’s hard because we don’t give up many chances. He has to be ready for the one or two we give up.
“When you know you’re going to make a lot of saves and you get in a zone when you’re making saves, it’s kind of easy to be in a rhythm. With him he’s got to be ready for that one moment and you never know when it’s coming. He’s had to adapt to that and learn that over time.”
Porter wasn’t pleased with how Meves handled that in 2011, when he gave up 17 goals, a career high. Porter brought in highly recruited Fernando Pina, presumably to take over when Meves was gone, but also to push him in his senior year. Whether it was Porter’s nudging or Meves’ mental readjustment or the August death of his close friend, Columbus Crew rookie Kirk Urso, something clicked for Meves.
Porter could live with Meves’ 16 goals allowed in 2010, because the national champions had seven players taken in the MLS SuperDraft. But when the Zips don’t have as many stars or as much leadership or are battling injuries, Meves becomes even more important. That seems to be the case this year.
On Sunday, Meves set the NCAA record for minutes in goal. His 8,498 minutes surpassed Division I leader Brian Edwards, who totaled 8,489 for Wake Forest from 2004-07.
Earlier this season Meves became the NCAA’s all-time shutout leader, a record he has since run to 54. He has started 93 games and boasts a career record of 77-7-9, allowing a total of 47 goals. Respect from his teammates may have reached an all-time high.
“Meves has made incredible saves this year,” Zips senior forward Thomas Schmitt said. “He has throughout his whole career, but this year I’ve seen him take it to the next level since the start of preseason. It’s great to see him grow.”
With four saves against the Wolverines, Meves boosted his 2012 total to 52. That action against UM should keep Meves pumped.
“A lot of it is psychological,” Porter said.
“You make a few saves, the ball’s not going in your goal. The next thing you’ve got this aura of confidence, swagger, and he has that right now.”
There was no hint of swagger in Meves’ pedestrian description of Pereira’s shot and the save that crushed the Wolverines.
“He got it on his foot and he started in. As he got around the defender I kind of got a feeling he was going to try to curl it in and he did. I was able to just go out and get it,” Meves said.
That was typical of the laid-back Meves, whom Porter described in August as a “hibernating bear.” But Porter and the Zips know bears can fly.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the her blog at http://www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.