SANTA BARBARA, Calif. — In a season filled with adversity, the University of Akron men’s soccer team found multiple sources of inspiration, including a seventh-grader.
Maverick Westover of Springfield Township has been part of the Zips since 2016, when he began the association through Team IMPACT, an organization that connects children with chronic or life-threatening illnesses to college athletic teams to improve their quality of life.
Westover, 13 and home schooled, has undergone treatment for common variable immune deficiency (CVID) since he was 9 months old. The condition makes him susceptible to infection, especially in his ears, sinuses and lungs.
He’s attended games home and away, watched practices, and was included in the team picture for the Mid-American Conference championships. Accompanied by his mother, Cristal, he enjoyed his second consecutive College Cup as UA faced Maryland on Sunday night for the national title at Harder Stadium.
Westover has taken to writing UA coach Jared Embick inspirational letters before road games, and Embick sometimes reads snippets to the Zips before they hit the field.
“It’s our favorite thing. When we’re about to go out on the field and we get that quote from Maverick or we get that little inspirational speech, it gets us going,” UA senior Morgan Hackworth said after practice Saturday. “We’re ready to play at that exact second.”
Freshman Carlo Ritaccio said the Zips can draw from Westover’s messages when they find themselves in a trying situation.
“As tough of a game that we have, we know that Maverick has been through tougher things. We know if he can do it, no matter what situation, whether we’re struggling or winning, he’s always that inspiration that we’ve got,” Ritaccio said.
Last year, Cristal drove Maverick to the College Cup in Chester, Pa., where the Zips lost to Stanford in the semifinals. This year’s final four was at UC-Santa Barbara, where UA men’s soccer won the first team title in school history in 2010.
At the end of training Monday at Stile Athletics Field House, the Zips surprised Westover, telling him he was going with them to California and flying with the team’s reserves. The team roared in approval.
“He was over-the-moon excited; he actually cried,” Cristal said. It was Maverick’s first plane ride.
“The guys love him. It means so much to him, it was no way we were going to not have him here. More importantly, we wanted it to be one of the best experiences he’s had,” Embick said. “It was just making sure he didn’t get wind of it before we could surprise him. We wanted to make him feel like it wasn’t going to be possible.”
Cristal Westover said she turned down offers from UA alums to tour Santa Barbara so she could attend practice with Maverick.
“He loves being with them. He loves the team, he loves the relationship and connection he has with them, he loves soccer. It’s big for him,” she said. “He really wants coach Jared to have a national championship and Akron and the guys he’s been with a couple years.”
The feeling is mutual.
“It’s been awesome to have him here,” Hackworth said. “To know him for the past two years has been such an honor in my life.”
Stu Parry, the pioneer of UA soccer who coached the Zips from 1955-69 and took them to six NCAA appearances, drove in from his winter base in Palm Springs, California, to watch. He still lives in Richfield.
Parry remembered how UA director of athletics Mack Rhoades agonized before hiring coach Caleb Porter, then an assistant at his alma mater Indiana, before the 2006 season.
“I was not involved, but the athletic director came in and they said, ‘Here are three finalists, you’ve got to pick one of these guys.’ He called each of them in, and two of them had Division I experience, [and] Caleb was an assistant,” Parry said. “The AD had to go out at night and walk around the track. He said, ‘I know what I should do, but I can’t believe I would do it.’ He was almost praying. He says, ‘Caleb’s the guy.’ ”
In Porter’s second season, he hired Embick, and the two collaborated on style and strategy, with Embick also traveling the globe looking for recruits.
Parry said he did not expect the Zips to reach the College Cup this season after opening 6-6-2.
“I never thought it would be like this. Nobody did, especially after the start they had this year,” Parry said. “The bloggers have gone crazy, ‘Long season. Forget about this season.’ They’re just liable to win this thing. They’re hot.”
One of the most remembered moments of 2018 will be the Zips’ 34 passes that led to freshman Colin Biros’ game-winning header to upset Stanford on Nov. 30 and send UA to the College Cup. A video of the goal with the passes numbered went viral on Twitter.
“It was unbelievable. That team had to let 'em do that, too. They were packed up. They had parked the bus pretty much. I just hate to see ‘em pass it so far back all the time,” Parry said. “Nobody plays the passing game to the degree Akron does. They all try to, but the patience I think wears down.”
Stanford was the three-time defending champion, and the Zips had seen the Cardinal tie the game after UA took a 2-0 lead.
“What’s special is the moment of the game and the season. You have the three-time defending champions, you had a big lead slip by. When the going gets tough, the answer isn’t kicking balls or playing direct. If we’re ever going to win anything, we pass the ball, we move the opponent, we play Akron soccer,” Embick said Thursday.
“What we’re most proud of as a coaching staff, what it meant to sit there and watch the guys do what we talk about every day in training — our habits, our mentality, how we want to play. I give Stanford credit. We needed every one of those 34 passes to open them up.”
Wearing No. 10
Senior midfielder Marco Micaletto, who came to UA when he had a year of eligibility remaining after graduating from Young Harris College in Georgia, said he believes he is fortunate to wear No. 10. Since 2006, it’s been the number of Zips stars Adam Najem, Darren Mattocks, Anthony Ampaipitakwong and Sinisa Ubparipovic.
“It’s another blessing. It’s something you don’t try and think about too much, you just take it and understand the responsibility with it. But I can only do what I can do,” Micaletto said Monday. “There’s No. 10s in the past that have been sensational. I’m just honored to have their number on my back, simple as that. If I were to leave a legacy of a national championship, then I get somewhere close to them.”
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Browns blog at www.ohio.com/browns. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ.