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OPINION: Dawn of a new era



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Freshman Joshua Penn and redshirt junior Spencer Glass hug after losing to University of California, Santa Barbara on Dec. 1 at Bill Armstrong Stadium. IU ended their season 15-3-4. Claire Livingston

On a dreary December day, freezing rain unleashed itself upon a desolate soccer stadium. Just a few hours before, Bill Armstrong Stadium buzzed with over 700 fans who braved the weather conditions to watch an NCAA Tournament Sweet Sixteen matchup.

Three and a half hours later, the buzz had been sucked away, leaving behind an eerie tranquility that clawed its way through the gusty, 30 mph winds. Entrenched in it all, only a single soul remained – IU freshman midfielder Aidan Morris.

With a set of Apple AirPods snuggled tightly in his ears, the Big Ten Freshman of the Year sat motionless on the home team’s steel bench, raindrops trickling down his golden, wavy hair. For over 15 minutes, Morris, wearing just a black quarter-zip and black pants, stared blankly down at Jerry Yeagley Field. Time kept ticking, rain drops kept dripping and the pain of IU’s double overtime loss to the University of California Santa Barbara, intensified. 

After what seemed like hours, but was only mere minutes, Morris got up and paced down the field for the last time. Before he headed toward the chain-link exit, Morris paused, kissed the palm of his hand and placed it on the turf below. It was quite possibly his final act as a member of the IU men's soccer team.

***

Everyone deals with defeat in their own way, but for a soccer program that’s experienced very little besides triumph, much less losing in front of its home crowd, nothing could’ve prepared the Hoosiers for the emptiness they were left with Sunday afternoon.

“It’s tough, it’s a real gutted locker room,” IU head coach Todd Yeagley said following the season-ending loss. “They felt they had so much more in them and it’s going to take a while for the guys to understand what they did. I just told them that I was proud of them and what they did to represent the program this year.”

Some called it bad luck, others blamed the poor weather, yet very few took a moment to understand the significance of what had just taken place. Not just from the match hours ago but of a season that transpired in exhilarating fashion and ended all the same.

After replacing 10 outgoing starters from the 2018 College Cup team, IU was left scrambling to fill significant shoes prior to this season. It seemed unlikely the Hoosiers would mesh so quickly and even less probable they would live up to their storied past. But virtually everyone, especially its Big Ten counterparts, knew to never count out Yeagley’s team.

By season’s dawn, after the dust settled on IU’s roster makeover, the program was tabbed by coaches and media alike as the No. 1 team in the conference and No. 2 team in the nation. 

The only question: Could the Hoosiers live up to the lofty expectations?

“We understand that those rankings mean absolutely nothing to us,” IU junior forward Ian Black said prior to the season. “I think it shows that we had success last year and that a lot of people want to put us up high so they can knock us back down.”

Whether it was out of sheer naivety, ignorance or a little bit of both, very few doubted IU's ability to reach a third-straight College Cup appearance. It’s this same bravado that’s helped craft IU into a juggernaut since the program’s inception nearly five decades ago.

“Day in, day out, we understand that Big Ten games lead to titles,” IU sophomore defender Jack Maher said. “And get us to our three goals, which are Big Ten Regular Season title, Big Ten tourney and National Championship.”

When IU’s men’s soccer program was first founded in 1973, all it has ever done is win and win and win. With that success came a seemingly never-ending embarrassment of riches in both talent and accolades: the pinnacle of what other programs strove to be.

***

The Hoosiers, who were utilizing anywhere from four to seven freshmen on a given night, started the season as many expected: scrappy and chaotic. Five-straight overtime matches to open their nonconference slate showcased a team that was young and still learning to play with one another. 

However, it also afforded IU invaluable late-game experience, which propelled it to an undefeated 3-0-2 start.

Things were going about as well as Yeagley could’ve hoped for, until they weren’t. 

In its first true road match of the season, IU traveled an hour north to face in-state rival Butler University on Sep. 24. The Bulldogs, who were at a clear disadvantage, used its experience to dismantle the Hoosiers in a 2-1 stunner.

“I don’t think we performed to our standards, especially being an Indiana soccer player,” Maher said following the loss. “It’s a learning moment, especially for a young team like this. We will keep learning and getting better. It’s all on us.”

IU would eventually regain its footing, going unbeaten in its next five matches. And then Maryland happened.

Ludwig field in College Park, Maryland, was a venue the Hoosiers hadn’t defeated the Terrapins in for nearly two decades. Also at stake was IU’s historic streak of four years without a regular season Big Ten loss. Something had to give, and it did with IU showing it was finally vulnerable after suffering a 3-0 trouncing to Maryland.

“It was a game where we have to do the small things better,” Yeagley said following the Maryland match. “Just have to hit the reset button, reassess and move forward.

It was a moment in which the Hoosiers were forced to look at themselves in the mirror. Rather than dwell on the loss, IU collected itself, reflected on its shortcoming and sought vengeance.

Whatever was said following the Maryland match clearly resounded as IU went on to win its next eight matches. The bounce back run included a Big Ten Regular Season title, a Big Ten Tournament title and a second round victory in the NCAA Tournament.

It all culminated in the fateful third round meeting with UC Santa Barbara.

“There’s not much you can say,” IU junior co-captain Spencer Glass said. “It’s how you respond to it, bounce back and learn from the situations.”

This wasn’t how IU envisioned its season ending, at least not in this way. A single wet patch of grass and a slip, that’s all it took to put the final touches on a story capable of so much more. A story that now seems incomplete and full of what if’s.

***

Days after the anguish has had a chance to simmer, decisions still need to be made.

“Any time you give a rose to someone, it’s quickly dead,” Yeagley said. “Whether it’s good or bad, as coaches we have to move on and assess.”

For star freshmen like Morris, Joshua Penn and Victor Bezzera, the opportunity to forego the rest of their college careers and jump straight to the professional ranks dangles before them. 

Maher, the Big Ten’s Defender of the Year, also faces the same dilemma.

“Indiana’s a special place, a special program,” Maher said. “We have coaches, players that understand what it takes to win. And that’s the main takeaway that we’re going to come away with.”

Regardless of what happens, it’s assured Yeagley has a plan. He always does.

No matter the curveballs the Big Ten’s reigning Coach of the Year has faced since taking the helm in 2010, he’s still managed to lead IU to three College Cups, three conference title and a national title in 2012.

Yet, the program is now moving into its ninth-straight year without raising a National title. It’s the second-longest national title drought in program history since the Hoosiers won their first in 1982.

But amid all the influx and exiting of talent, one thing has still held true for IU: its championship swagger. Only this time, it seems increasingly likely that tweaks will be necessary to fend off the rest of the nation.

The program’s willingness to step out from behind the cloud of its unprecedented past will be what separates it and the evasive ninth championship banner.

“We’re going to take a long time to reflect,” Yeagley said. “It never stops, as does the players.”

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