In the University of Akron men's soccer record-breaking season, four players with a common bond helped propel the Zips to zero regulation-time losses, a 23-o-2 record and a National Championship game birth.
One defender keyed the defense with 25 starts in 25 games, another defender was named All-MAC, a dynamic midfielder served as a catalyst to the entire offense and another midfielder was selected 10th in the MLS SuperDraft after the season concluded.
Their bond? All four (Zarek Valentin, Kofi Sarkodie, Anthony Ampaipitakwong and Blair Gavin, respectively) played their high school soccer for the IMG Academy soccer program.
Luckily for Akron, two more IMG Academy soccer program players will likely join the Zips for the 2010 season.
Seniors Reinaldo Brenes and Martin Ontiveros -- two of the top players in the country -- have verbally committed to Akron to keep the program's future bright.
"I love how they (Akron) attack and move the ball," Ontiveros said. "They have a similar style to we use at IMG. It's a style, I think, will help me become a better player."
The two warm-weather natives will find a shock in the Akron weather, though.
"I think I saw snow when I was four years old," Brenes said, "but I don't even remember it."
Hailing from Costa Rica, for which he plays on the Youth National Team, Brenes does the dirty work for the IMG team since joining the Academy two years ago. He plays the yin to Ontiveros' attacking yang.
"He brings a lot of fight to our team," Ontiveros said of his teammate. "He recovers a lot of balls. He honestly ends up doing my defensive work because I really don't drift back very much."
Ontiveros, from Texas, caught the eye of a scout during a tournament in Pennsylvania. The scout then contacted IMG Academy soccer program director, Tom Durkin, to tell him about the goal-scoring dynamo. In March 2009, Ontiveros brought his game to the Academy.
"The chance to be trained at IMG Academy by some of the top coaches in the nation and getting the experience of learning about other cultures from around the world is really interesting," Ontiveros said. "It makes things fun. Plus, we get to play soccer like four hours a day. That's awesome for me."
In the U.S. Soccer Development Academy League, which consists of the top clubs from around the nation, Ontiveros leads the team in scoring this season with 14 goals.
It's last season, though, that haunts and drives both players. IMG made it through the season and playoffs in Greensboro, NC, to qualify for the national championships of the Academy League at the Home Depot Center in California. In the final game of the knockout round, IMG jumped out to a 2-0 first-half lead against eventual champion Carmel (now Indiana United) before tying 3-3 and landing in the third-place game, which IMG won.
Ontiveros drops his head and shakes it in disbelief when people bring up the game against Carmel.
"I guess we got a little bit too confident," he said. "They ended up scoring right before the first half ended, and I remember thinking, 'Here they come.' We were still trying to attack, but they were on us in the 2nd half. We were one goal away from being in the national championship."
The two have bright futures, though, both immediately and down the road. They have another chance to chase that elusive Academy League national title with the regular season games cranking up this spring. They also get the chance to help add to the quickly building tradition at Akron, with both having lofty goals of playing for their respective men's national teams.
"Soccer is the biggest thing in (Costa Rica)," Brenes said. "People are very passionate about it. It's my dream to play for the team in the World Cup."
Ontiveros desires the same for the U.S. team.
"The only way I'm going to get there is to just keep playing and improving and listening to my coaches," he said. "It pumps me up just thinking about the future."