The battle for the wheel continues

Lance Lysowski

Hanging in the Kent State football locker room is a clock that serves as a reminder to the team of the last three meetings against their inner-state rival, Akron.

The clock turned on when spring ball began, marking a countdown to the day the Flashes kick-off against the Zips.

With 24 hours left on the clock, Kent State coach Doug Martin knows the game against Akron has much more meaning than a game against other opponents and the preparation for a rivalry game needs to reflect that.

“We’ve made a big deal of this game,” Martin said. “The issue becomes when you get to the game, all of those emotions are gone. You’ve got to be emotionally ready to play this football game, but that also means you are ready to execute, you understand the plan. I think our players understand that.”

The battle began in 1923 over what the two teams play for: the Wagon Wheel. The Zips hold a 30-20-2 advantage over the Flashes and have won 11 of the past 13 meetings.

For the past three seasons, Akron narrowly escaped with the Wagon Wheel, winning by an average of six points. Last season after the clock hit zero, the Flashes looked on as the Zips celebrated in their new stadium with the Wagon Wheel held over their heads.

Fifth-year senior safety Brian Lainhart has never won the Wagon Wheel. As a redshirt freshman in 2006, Lainhart watched as his teammates defeated the Zips, 37-15. The senior calls it the greatest win in his career he never actually played.

Lainhart said the most unique part of the rivalry is the proximity of Akron. With just 10 miles separating the two schools, the Kent State-Akron rivalry is the third closest in the nation. The senior and his teammates regularly run into Zip players, seeing them everywhere they go.

“We go to Chapel Hill Mall, and that’s where they’re at,” Lainhart said. “We’re buying shoes at Foot Locker, they’re buying shoes at Foot Locker. You go downtown, you go to Cavs games, Browns games, whatever. You see Akron football, Kent State football. If I see someone with an Akron football shirt on, I won’t hold the door open for them.”

While the rivalry brings out hate and physicality, the actual battle begins months before players hit the field each season. When both schools reach the recruiting trail to lure players to their schools, it’s common that Kent State and Akron fight for the interests of athletes.

This has been the case for decades, and most recently, the Flashes won the battle between Akron for junior cornerback Josh Pleasant and sophomore offensive lineman Brian Winters.

While Pleasant was attending Hargrave Military Academy, dozens of scouts were watching an inter-squad scrimmage. When Pleasant jumped for an interception, he was tripped up, and fell down a steep incline at the back of the end zone. Only a few teammates and the Kent State coaching staff came to his aid. Pleasant said the Flashes’ promise to mold him into a man, and the fact that he disliked the Akron name, led to him committing to Martin and Kent State.

“When (former coach A.J. Pratt) talked to me, he talked to me about character and how he saw how hard I was working,” Pleasant said. “He wants to help me become more of a man and help me grow as a person. That kind of caught my attention.”

Winters’ road to becoming a Flash was similar. While he weighed several scholarship offers, the comfort level with the city of Kent made the difference.

“I had a lot of other offers, but I felt most comfortable at Kent,” Winters said. “They really offered just about everything. I love the school. I love the program. The football is really good.”

Tomorrow, the Flashes will seek their first Mid-American Conference win of the season, and the majority of the team is looking to win their first game for the Wagon Wheel.

For Pleasant and the Flashes, the mission is simple: when the clock hits zero Saturday at 3:30 p.m., it’s time to bring the Wagon Wheel back to Kent State.

“I haven’t won the Wagon Wheel yet, and I’m sick and tired of seeing that Wagon Wheel not be on my sideline,” Pleasant said. “Everybody feels that on this team. There’s no way we can let that happen again for our university, for our coaches, all of the players. I want it, we want it.”

Contact Lance Lysowski at [email protected].