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Zips star Sarkodie is prince of player

University of Akron's Kofi Sarkodie leaps in the air to control a pass during first-half action in their NCAA soccer match against Cal State Northridge at Lee Jackson Field on Friday Sept. 17, 2010, in Akron, Ohio.Kofi Sarkodie is a charmer with a dazzling smile and a gift of gab, a charismatic leader on the University of Akron men's soccer team.

But would you expect any less from an African prince?

The son of a princess and grandson of a queen from the village of Kumasi, Ghana, Sarkodie laughs about the jokes he's heard and his ''Prince'' nickname. He might try to avoid another trip to Burger King, where his teammates pilfered a cardboard crown for him.

''I wore it on the way home. It was hilarious,'' he said.

The princess, mother Olivia Sarkodie, said her three soccer-playing sons all have captivating personalities. But she was not surprised that when the Zips had a team meeting after an upset loss to Cleveland State this season, Kofi had the most to say after coach Caleb Porter left the room.

''Kofi is a talker,'' Olivia Sarkodie said earlier this week, barely able to stifle her laughter.

Going into Sunday's 4 p.m. NCAA Tournament match against Indiana at Lee R. Jackson Field, tri-captain Sarkodie has helped to guide the Zips to an 18-1-1 record and a No. 3 seeding. The junior defender is fourth on the team in scoring with 20 points. Four of his seven goals have been game-winners. He's led a defensive unit that matched an NCAA record with 11 consecutive shutouts.

His academic resume is just as impressive. A biology major carrying a 3.96 GPA, Sarkodie was named the 2010 Academic All-America of the Year in Division I last week, becoming the first Akron player in any sport to be a first-team academic All-American twice.

Sarkodie hopes to play professional soccer in Europe, but might pursue a medical career after that. His father Amaning, who has studied at Dartmouth and Columbia, is a doctor specializing in family practice; his mother is a nurse. They moved to Huber Heights, outside Dayton, in 1979 to attend Wright State University's medical and nursing schools.

Sarkodie is only 19, but his experiences in soccer have already made for a worldly — or perhaps princely — existence.

When he was 15, he left home for two years of study and training at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla. His brother Ofori also attended IMG Academy. Sarkodie practiced alongside the world's best athletes, including tennis stars Maria Sharapova and Venus and Serena Williams, whom he said came there to train. He said he was friends with the No. 3-ranked female golfer, likely Paula Creamer, some of the best basketball players and a few future Akron teammates.

Some teenagers were homesick, but that was not the case with Sarkodie.

''If I'm going to become a pro, this is the situation I'm going to be under,'' he said. ''It almost became like a job for me.''

That approach likely came from his family's practice of what they call ''vision quest.'' It has been part of the goal-planning for Kofi, Ofori, a graduate assistant at Indiana, and Kwame, a former starting midfielder at the University of Cincinnati now playing with the Cincinnati Kings in a professional indoor league. It might soon help their sister Mimi, 12, who could make a national pool for her age group this year.

''We talk about what you wish you could do and how to go about getting there,'' Olivia Sarkodie said. ''If you want to play soccer, there's a lot of stress; you have to get up early. You need vitamins, rest, good nutrition, all the things that must be put in place to do well.''

The family also has ''brainstorming'' sessions, in which they discuss what they need to do for their personal growth and development.

Olivia Sarkodie hopes her sons will one day visit Ghana, because she believes they could help the country's impoverished youth. But Sarkodie has seen much of the world during his U.S. junior national competition. He served as captain of the U-18 team and played on the U-17 World Cup team, which drew crowds of 7,000-10,000 for the matches in South Korea.

''I remember one game we were playing Argentina in Argentina and we were beating them 1-0 at halftime,'' Sarkodie said. ''We were walking to the locker room and the gates are closing in on us, the kids are spitting at us, they're throwing rocks. You name it, it's coming down on us. When we got on the buses, there were police officers with shotguns.

''In some countries it gets pretty crazy.''

When the pressure and intensity of the NCAA Tournament starts affecting the younger Zips, Sarkodie is a calming influence.

''I've been here for three years now, the first year to the Sweet 16, the next year to the finals,'' Sarkodie said. ''Those situations allow me to help the freshmen and sophomores, to prepare them for the intensity of the matches, the crowd, all the pressure they're going to be feeling. My international experience allows me to not feel that kind of pressure as much, so the guys can look to me for guidance and I can help carry the team in these bigger matches.''

Porter saw what it was like not to have Sarkodie in the final three matches of the regular season, which included the 2-1 loss Oct. 30 at Cleveland State. Sarkodie suffered a sprained left knee against No. 9 Creighton, and Porter didn't want to rush him back.

''Not having him out there on the field, I could certainly feel we weren't the same,'' Porter said. ''We were still a good team and we had other guys who stepped in and did a nice job, but we're at our best when Kofi's there.

''Not only is he an integral part of the way we play, but he's an important piece in terms of his leadership. He's a dominant personality, he's charismatic, he's extremely intelligent. Vocally he says the right things before the game, at halftime, during the game. But he also sets a great example with his play and his intensity and his competitive nature.''

Last season, Sarkodie scored the goal in a 1-0 victory over Tulsa that sent the Zips to the College Cup. For the Zips to win Akron's first national championship in any sport, culminating in the Dec. 12 final, their prince might have to ride to the rescue again.

Porter has no doubt Sarkodie will be ready. He was born ready.

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