Men’s soccer championships and Big Ten supremacy aren’t the norm in Bloomington — they’re the expectation. For decades IU’s men’s soccer program has stood the test of time, rarely faltering and seldom losing a step.
But this season, under the daunting shadow of its eight national championships, IU’s historic past nearly became its greatest enemy.
Since taking over as head coach of the program in 2010, Todd Yeagley has been no stranger to adversity. Not only did he take over the Hoosiers amidst an uncharacteristically mediocre stretch from 2005-2009, Yeagley did so with his father and the NCAA’s all-time winningest coach, Jerry Yeagley, watching his every move.
The task this season, though, was unlike any other Yeagley had ever been saddled with.
After losing 10 of 11 starters from last year’s College Cup squad that featured MAC Hermann trophy winner Andrew Gutman, and a consensus First Team All-American goalkeeper in Trey Muse, the Hoosiers were left with a bevvy of shoes to fill and a significant amount of experience to replace.
However, with IU maintaining its status as a hotbed for top college soccer recruits, finding elite talent to plug its many holes wouldn’t be an issue. By the start of training camp, the Hoosiers’ roster consisted of 14 newcomers; two transfers and 12 freshmen.
Headlining the freshman class were three highly-touted recruits in Joshua Penn, Victor Bezerra and Aidan Morris. Add in the transfers of seniors Simon Waever and Joris Ahlinvi, and IU’s talent pool had no problem replenishing itself.
“I think this year is kind of uncharted territory,” IU junior midfielder Spencer Glass said. “Just from how many people we lost and having all these young kids and trying to get them acclimated.”
Whereas most incoming freshmen are given time to adjust to the college level, IU’s roster makeup didn’t afford its freshmen that luxury.
From day one, they, along with newly-minted starters Glass and junior midfielder A.J. Palazzolo, were forced to learn on the fly and figure out how to build chemistry quickly.
“We’ve never had this much youth at one time,” Yeagley said. “I am pretty pleased with what they’ve learned and what they’ve been able to implement.”
But with an inexperienced team comes inevitable growing pains.
That’s why on the first day of training camp, the team gathered around a whiteboard and made a checklist of three simple, yet audacious goals: Big Ten Regular Season Title, Big Ten Tournament Title, and College Cup Title.
Now several months after those goals were written, the first box has officially been crossed off. After finishing its schedule with a 12-2-3 overall record, and a 7-1 record in conference play, IU battled up until the final day of the regular season to secure the programs’ 16th Big Ten Regular Season Title.
The journey to that title was anything but conventional for the Hoosiers, though.
To begin the season, IU was immediately faced with adversity as they found themselves in back-to-back double-overtime matches against the University of California, Los Angeles, and the University of Pittsburgh.
The extra time became a blessing in disguise, as it gave IU’s newcomers invaluable experience early on and forced them to dig deep. IU eventually won both matches on a pair of golden goals, first from freshman forward Herbert Endeley, and then sophomore defender Jack Maher.
“I would say this is probably the fastest matured freshman class that we’ve had to have,” Glass said.
As the season progressed, several young Hoosiers began to show their maturation and emerged as linchpins in the starting lineup.
Morris, who was recently named the No. 1 freshman in the nation according to Top Drawer Soccer, became an irreplaceable part of IU’s midfield due to his influence on both sides of the ball. Nothing showcased this more than when Morris earned his first Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week selection on Oct. 29 after a dominant one goal, two assist night against Rutgers.
The contributions of Bezerra and Penn can’t be understated either. The freshman forward duo closed out the regular season tied for most goals on the team with five. Both players also accounted for two game-winning goals each, making for a clutch Hoosiers’ front line.
Where IU has thrived the most this season, though, is in its defense and goalkeeping. Freshman goalkeeper Roman Celetano took over the starting job midway through the season and has flourished ever since, collecting 16 saves and turning away 72.7% of shots faced. The Hoosiers’ back line, captained by Maher, has also once again been among the best in the nation, allowing just 38.3% of total shots on goal.
“It’s very rewarding to see how much work went into one, bringing this group in, and two, trying to mesh them together as fast as you can,” Yeagley said.
Even after IU suffered its first regular season conference loss in over four years to then-No. 25 Maryland on Oct. 18, it maintained its composure and showed its resilience. IU went on to win its final four games of the season en route to the regular season title.
“I feel like they grew up with the games that was presented to us,” Yeagley said. “And I think that helped us get a little older, faster.”
With the postseason looming in the days ahead, it’s assured that the Hoosiers aren’t satisfied with raising just one trophy. The initial title celebration lasted just one day, Glass said, before the team got back to practice on Monday with more work to be done.
For a season that began in uncharted territory, IU now finds itself back in a familiar place: as a No. 1 seed in the Big Ten Tournament and contenders for an NCAA title.
But this Hoosier team can’t be saved by the ghosts of its championship past.
Instead, it’s the maturing youth that will dictate exactly how many more boxes IU will check off its whiteboard this season.
“We don’t have to be perfect to win games,” Yeagley said. “We just have to make sure we do things really well and more consistent.”
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