When the Big Ten fall soccer season was postponed Aug. 11 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, junior midfielder Joe Schmidt’s immediate reaction was to FaceTime senior forward AJ Palazzolo.
Maybe it should be no surprise that Schmidt goes to Palazzolo to gauge what he’s thinking.
The paths they took to being starters for the IU men’s soccer team mirror each other. They both redshirted a season at IU. They share a similar drive to win. They both like Five Guys. They even live next door to each other and spent plenty of time this past summer watching movies together.
They started off by watching "The Godfather" trilogy, which Schmidt had never seen. Next was "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy, though Palazzolo didn’t like it as much. Then they moved on to watching the entire "Harry Potter" series, which subsequently turned Palazzolo into a big fan of the series.
“We had a lot of free time,” Schmidt said.
In between their movie marathons, they watched Netflix and Hulu shows and started the Tottenham Hotspur documentary, "All or Nothing". Now the English Premier League has returned, so Schmidt said the team will spend plenty of weekend mornings watching those games, although they may not all be piled onto the same couch like normal.
It isn’t just the fact they enjoy watching movies together — it goes deeper than that. Their similarities began when they were younger, playing for the United States Youth National Team, and subsequently, when they weren’t.
Schmidt from Bainbridge Township, Ohio, received his call up for the U-14 and U-15 U.S. Youth National teams. Palazzolo’s oportunity, coming from St. Louis, came later for the U-17 and U-18 teams. But once they got older, those call ups stopped coming.
“It hurt the confidence as a player,” Schmidt said. “Thoughts are running through your head, ‘Am I ever gonna be able to play at a high level? Have I peaked?’ Which is a crazy thought to think when you’re age 13, but that’s what went through my head.”
Palazzolo played for the residency team his sophomore year of high school and spent a semester in Florida. The process coming home was a little easier on him, since he was able to rejoin family and friends, and he got to play for his high school team his senior year.
Schmidt and Palazzolo shared a goal of returning to the national soccer stage, and they pushed each other to reach it.
They’re both competitive and a bit hot headed. On the field they might be at each other’s throats, both to make the other better and to beat them.
“But no matter what happens in training we’re always laughing about whatever just after,” Palazzolo said.
With practices were dealyed on Sept. 4 due to players on the team testing positive for the coronavirus, Palazzolo and Schmidt have spent more time recently hanging out off the field than on it.
They’ve had to get creative to stay in shape. Palazzolo said he likes to run on campus or go to the team’s shed to get work in with dumbbells and bands. Schmidt faced some uncertainty until his test came back negative, but he has since been running and has some equipment he brought back to his house from the shed for workouts.
The positive cases also limit their bubble to only people within their houses, so Palazzolo and Schmidt haven’t gotten together to practice or workout.
Palazzolo said it may have been possible for the Big Ten to play this fall, but he’s not sure how it would’ve worked.
“Our ultimate goal is to play in the NCAA Tournament, which is not happening this fall,” Palazzolo said.
Other conferences, like the Atlantic Coast Conference, have already begun their fall slate. For their purposes, the conference is split into two regions, with each team playing the others from their respective region at least once.
Schmidt said if they tried to play conference games in the fall, and cases spiked and caused the team to sit games out, it wouldn’t bode well for their postseason chances.
Now practices are starting back up, and the NCAA has announced dates for a spring championship. It’ll be cold when the season starts, but that’s Palazzolo’s favorite playing weather.
A spring season will be new territory for the Hoosiers, but Schmidt and Palazzolo have plenty of experience to guide them.
Schmidt was an immediate redshirt when he came to IU his freshman year. He worked his way on as a substitute his sophomore season in 2018, playing 15 games off the bench.
Palazzolo played 10 games off the bench in 2016 as a freshman. His 2017 season became a redshirt year after he tore his ACL in the summer.
When he returned to the field in 2018, Palazzolo played in all 24 of the Hoosiers' games, including six starts.
“It was a tough journey for sure, I did not think that surgery would be as hard as it was,” Palazzolo said. “Those two years that I had that were pretty tough helped me excel during the season.”
In 2019, the duo broke out together. Palazzolo started all 22 games while Schmidt started 20.
“For both of us, it was kind of a progression,” Schmidt said. “We weren’t the guys to come in immediately and start. It took time.”
This season, Schmidt will be a redshirt junior and Palazzolo a redshirt senior. They’ll be some of the most tenured Hoosiers, two of seven players in at least their fourth year with the program. They’ve been around for two College Cup trips, although both redshirted in 2017 when the Hoosiers lost to Stanford University in the championship.
But the two don’t want to dwell on the past.
They’ve stepped up to take on leadership roles, filling the shoes of graduated players. When they started there was a blockade of experience from the team’s upperclassmen keeping them off the field. Now they’ve become those upperclassmen.
“I think when you're in the moment you’re always looking at what’s next,” Schmidt said. “Can you become one of the most impactful starters? Can you become one of the better players in the conference?”
Both Schmidt and Palazzolo are always on the hunt for the next step, for a way to become better. They’re also consistently passing that mentality to the younger players. They know what it’s like to be redshirting and can give advice to younger players who are in that same situation.
“It’s like ‘hey, you might be in this position now but it's not about where you start, it's about where you finish,’” Schmidt said.