It felt like the University of Akron men’s soccer season had slipped away with a 2-0 loss to Hartwick on Oct. 5.
As an NCAA-record run of 49 consecutive conference victories ended, UA’s chances for its seventh consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance seemed all but gone.
Coach Jared Embick doesn’t believe that. As No. 20 UA (8-3) hosts No. 15 Wake Forest (6-2-4) tonight, he hopes Hartwick will be this season’s Cleveland State.
That’s a reference to UA’s 2010 national championship year, when the Zips suffered their only loss to the then 7-9 Vikings. It was a program-shaking moment for the No. 1 Zips, who had reached the national finals the previous year, and it sparked a players-only meeting.
Except within the team, expectations aren’t as high this season for the Zips, who lost six players from 2012 to Major League Soccer, four of them now starting. But the setback at home against Hartwick (previously 2-5-2) felt the same as Cleveland State.
Embick hopes it produces the same results.
After that stunning upset, Embick gave the players Sunday off. When the Zips returned for training Monday, he peppered them with tough questions as they reviewed game film. He painted a stark picture of what the Zips were lacking.
“I said, ‘You guys get along. You should be able to tell a friend you respect that they’re capable of a whole lot more. Say things like, ‘Look, we need you here, we need you to fight through some things. I need you to call me out; I can handle it. I don’t handle that well, say it this way,’ ” Embick said after practice Friday.
It was an outline for the approach Embick thought the Zips should be using on a daily basis.
“I told ’em, ‘Who you are off the field isn’t who you have to be in between the lines. You’ve got to separate the two. Off the field you don’t have to be a [jerk]. But on the field we may need a couple [jerks] out there,’ ” Embick said.
Then Embick and his staff departed, leaving the players to discuss what he said. They came to the practice field with 20 minutes of the day’s allotted time remaining, barely enough for warm-ups and a drill.
“It wasn’t yelling; we’re not panicking at all,” junior defender Bryan Gallego said of the post-Hartwick meeting. “It makes us stronger. We had to inform the younger guys that wasn’t up to the Akron standard.”
Two days after that session, UA went to Cleveland State and freshman Adam Najem scored the first two goals of his career in a 2-1 victory. On Monday, that earned him Mid-American Conference player of the week honors and selection to the National Team of the Week by College Soccer News. At halftime at CSU, senior midfielder Aodhan Quinn returned after missing four games with a high-ankle sprain.
Embick doesn’t hesitate to criticize as he motivates, but he hopes more of that comes from the team’s leaders.
“As a coach if they’re over-reliant on you, if you get in the game, no matter how much you want it from the sideline, they’ve got to be able to call each other out, inspire each other, trust each other, not just hope the coaches will hold them accountable,” he said. “When it’s your peers, it makes you stronger.”
He hopes that strength will carry the Zips as they enter a difficult stretch.
“In a sense Hartwick was the beginning of our season,” Gallego said. “That loss could have been the best thing that happened to us. We realized now every game is like an NCAA game. We can’t drop any points, we have to go out and attack. We know we can score and it’s coming. We’re about to break through.”
Embick said the Zips have left themselves no margin for error. Another stumble or two and they will be forced to win the MAC Tournament to reach the postseason. UA stands No. 40 in RPI, and Embick believes it would need to move up 10 to 15 spots to receive an NCAA at-large bid.
In the seven remaining regular-season games there are opportunities, with games against Wake Forest (No. 22 in RPI), Michigan State (8), Penn State (15) and Michigan (58). UA’s biggest victory in terms of RPI came against Furman (24), with losses to VCU (31), St. John’s (43) and Hartwick (120).
Embick hopes the latest defeat will serve as inspiration just as it did in 2010, but he knows many recent NCAA champions have suffered similar stumbles.
Indiana, the 2012 winner, lost to Michigan (4-7-1 at the time) and became the first No. 16 seed to win the NCAA title. In 2011, North Carolina fell to then 5-6-2 Davidson, which had one victory in its previous six games. UC-Santa Barbara, the 2006 champion, lost to then 3-8-1 UC-Riverside.
“When you’re around the team so much you get a feel for when you’re about to turn the corner and these last several days, that’s what it’s felt like,” Embick said. “You can see it in training since the second half [against Cleveland State].
“It looks like we’re there, but we’ve got to have wins to keep it there or else it could go the other way. There’s too much talent, too many guys with strong character for us not to have a good push at the end of the year. We still think we can win the thing.”
Marla Ridenour can be reached at email@example.com. Read 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.