SANTA BARBARA, Calif. — When the University of Akron men’s soccer team played at UC-Santa Barbara in September 2017, the coaching staff showed the Zips a hallowed spot in program history.
The Zips visited the beach where the 2010 team celebrated the school’s first national team championship, running into the ocean and hoisting the trophy.
“When you go to Akron, you hear about this championship in Santa Barbara a lot,” senior goalkeeper Ben Lundt said Thursday. “Being here is special for us. You hear about the stories in 2010 and you want to do it again.”
The Zips were not short on determination. But their season of miraculous resurrection ended one victory short Sunday night as 11th-seeded Maryland claimed a 1-0 victory and captured its fourth national championship before a crowd of 4,855 at Harder Stadium. Captain and four-year starter Amar Sejdic provided the game-winner for the Terrapins in the 57th minute on a penalty kick.
"We’re hurting now, but we’re hurting because we put ourselves in this situation. A month and a half, two months ago, nobody expected it," UA coach Jared Embick said. "I told the guys, ‘Sports, the champion gets defined by the trophy, but life’s not like that. Your ability to handle setbacks and push forward and pick yourselves up every time you fall down is more what life’s about.’ Unfortunately, we don’t get the moment we wanted, but this team showed a lot of people about perseverance and how you handle adversity. I was really proud of the coaches and players."
Coming in, the Zips had won nine consecutive games after a 6-6-2 start. Their five goals against Michigan State in Friday’s semifinal were the most scored in the College Cup since the 2004 semifinals.
But the Zips faced nearly a carbon copy of themselves. Maryland went 9-1-1 after a 4-5-3 start. It scored in 12 consecutive games after going without a goal in the first five matches. The Terrapins also did not give up a goal in the NCAA Tournament and allowed just 16 all season.
UA (15-7-2) was trying to join UC Santa Barbara in 2006 as the only unseeded teams to win the title. Maryland (13-6-4) also won championships in 2005 and 2008 and shared the title with Michigan State in 1968.
"Two opposing styles of play and they kind of drew us into their more fighting type of football, battling, not playing quick and creating rhythm," UA junior Skye Harter (Copley) said. "We went to their game and were chasing a little bit, and that made it hard-pressed to turn the tide. I don’t think either team had very good chances. It was more a battle in the middle of the field, and at the end of the day they won it."
Maryland’s Sejdic, who was named offensive MVP, ended the Zips’ hopes of another swim in the Pacific.
The Terrapins seized the momentum in the final 10 minutes of the first half and got the breakthrough when it appeared the Zips had been fouled. UA’s Sam Tojaga was strangled to the ground, but Maryland was given a free kick. On the ensuing clear, freshman Colin Biros was called for taking down Terps defender Johannes Bergmann.
On the penalty kick, Sejdic put the ball in the left corner of the net, nowhere close to Lundt. It was Sejdic’s eighth goal of the season.
The Zips had not trailed since the semifinals of the Mid-American Conference Tournament against West Virginia and UA’s freshmen seemed rattled. In the 76th minute, Lundt received a yellow card for taking down Matt Di Rosa in the box. Sejdic got another penalty kick and this time hesitated before shooting to the same corner. But Lundt extended to get the save.
"Going into this game, I watched a couple penalties from him," Lundt said of Sejdic. "On the first one, I thought he was going to my left, he went to my right. My second one, I thought because he was successful, I thought he was going there again. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to bail my teammates out. It hurts a little bit."
Lundt recorded six saves against the Terps and was named the tournament's defensive MVP. Harter and senior defender Abdi Mohamed joined him on the all-tournament team.
Both Embick and Harter departed optimistic about the future.
"I have no doubt from the freshmen up to the current juniors, the fire is there," Harter said. "Everyone is hurt deeply and that means they care, that means they want something. I have no doubt we’re going to have people come back next year and work even harder for it."
Embick was proud that a team with 18 newcomers reached the final game.
"Right now, you’re just overwhelmed with disappointment, but I always thought at the beginning of this year it was going to be a battle and it was going to be bumpy. I really wanted to make strides and be hard on the guys to find the way we want to play," Embick said. "We got to this point because we found it and the guys believed and we persevered.
"With 18 new players, it was about kind of building the foundation for this next group and this next run. We got here, so I have high hopes for next year."
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.