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What started with a verbal commitment from local player Matt Mason in December 2007 ended Wednesday night with confirmation of the nation's most decorated incoming men's soccer class for 2009 at the University of Akron.
Akron's eight-member confirmed class features five players with U.S. youth national team experience and one from the Zambian under-20 national team."Once we started getting a few [to verbally commit], the dominoes started to fall," Akron coach Caleb Porter said. "We got [David] Meves then Zarek [Valentin], and then I started to think we might get everyone we were after."
Mission accomplished.Akron's class includes U.S. under-20 national players Ben Speas (midfielder) and Valentin (defender), Zambian under-20 national team player Yoram Mwila (forward), U.S. under-18 national team players Chad Barson (defender), Scott Caldwell (midfielder) and Meves (goalkeeper), high school All-America selection Mason (forward) and college transfer Anthony Ponikvar (goalkeeper). Barson, Caldwell, Meves, Mwila and Ponikvar are enrolled at Akron and taking classes this semester. The rest of the 2009 signing class will join the Zips in the fall. "This is the class that will take our program to another level," Porter said. "We added quality, and we added depth." Akron, ranked as high as No. 2 in the nation last season, finished with a 17-2-4 record under the third-year head coach and reached the third round of the NCAA tournament. Two additional players have verbally committed to Akron but, because of NCAA recruiting guidelines, cannot be confirmed by the school at this time. It appears a strong in-state high school senior class, national team friendships, solid academic backgrounds and a unique soccer opportunity created the confluence that brought together Akron's confirmed eight-member class. NCAA Division I men's soccer programs are limited to a maximum 9.9 full athletic scholarships spread among the current team. The low number, although not intentional, severely limits a program's ability to lure a high-profile class through athletic aid. Four of the eight confirmed players are Ohio products, as are the two unconfirmed verbal commitments. Five of the confirmed eight players have a connection to U.S. Soccer's residency program in Bradenton, Fla., where these friendships were formed. Some of the players were roommates in the program. Porter said five of the incoming players are honors students and earned academic scholarships, thus stretching athletic scholarships over to more players. One player is the son of a University of Akron employee and can attend the school for free. These eight players, according to Porter, share the common desire of leading Akron to its first NCAA title. Although Wednesday marked the start of fall sports signings for NCAA Division I and II schools, Akron's class was nearly completed 11 months ago and had been in the works since 2007. Porter said Akron was in the market for a goalkeeper, two center fullbacks and an attacking player for the high school graduating class of 2009. "We go after the best kids we can find, and also the best kids we can get," Porter said. "Usually, they are not the same kid, but sometimes they are." Porter acknowledged that a stronger-than-usual senior class in Ohio was instrumental to Akron's recruiting success because college soccer recruiting remains largely a local and regional process. Mason's commitment in December 2007 kicked off the recruiting class and reflects Porter's recruiting strategy. Mason, who resides in Akron, was the state's high school Division II Player of the Year and received All-American accolades while starring at Cuyahoga Valley Christian School. In January 2008, Akron received a verbal from Meves, an Illinois product who is a two-time Parade All-American selection and member of the under-17 and under-18 national teams. Meves' commitment addressed Akron's need in goal. Meves was the first in the Class of 2009 who had participated in the U.S. Soccer residency program, where 40 of the nation's elite youth players annually undergo intense training while continuing their high school education. Valentin, a Pennsylvania native and residency participant who has made appearances with the under-15, under-17, under-18 and under-20 national teams as a defensive player, pledged to the Zips in mid-February. Speas followed in mid-to-late February, and the Stow, Ohio, resident and residency player is considered the jewel of the class. Porter said Speas, a midfielder who has been with the under-17, under-18 and under-20 national teams, was an early Akron target and had made several unofficial trips to the school before committing. Barson, another residency player with ties to Columbus, Ohio, committed in late February. Barson is a highly coveted defender who has made appearances with the under-15, under-17 and under-18 national teams. Caldwell, from Boston, waited until October to commit to Akron. Like Barson, Caldwell was a residency player who has played for the under-15, under-17 and under-18 national teams. Caldwell's decision was driven by the desire to attend college in the current spring semester, according to Porter, and Akron could accommodate the standout midfielder. One common thread among Akron's incoming residency players is that every one of them trained and played with Akron freshman Kofi Sarkodie. "Everyone knows coaches recruit kids, but kids recruit kids, too," Porter said. Porter says this year's recruiting class has roots with current Akron sophomore Anthony Ampaipitakwong, Porter's first successful residency recruit for Akron two years ago. "He was our first big-time kid," Porter said. "Once you get one [residency] kid, it opens others' eyes. Getting Ampaipitakwong led to [current Akron sophomores] Hunter Dorton and Blair Gavin. Blair was roommates with Zarek at IMG Academy. Zarek knew Kofi, Scott Caldwell, Chad and Ben. The next thing you know, the dominoes all start to fall." Although Porter is in his third year at Akron, he's no stranger to big-time college soccer. He played for and later coached under Indiana legend Jerry Yeagley and was part of the IU staff that won national titles in 2003 and 2004. He was IU's recruiting coordinator in 2005 when IU landed what was then considered the nation's top class that year. Porter said that with such a strong incoming class at Akron come lofty expectations, which he welcomes. "I get phone calls about the recruiting class, and some say 'Congratulations on the class,' and others say 'Congratulations on more pressure [to win]," Porter said with a laugh. "It's good pressure," he added. "We want to be a top-five program, and when people talk about who's in the running for a national championship, we want to be part of that conversation, and this is the class that could make us part of that conversation."
Sheldon Shealer covers youth soccer for ESPNRISE.com.