For just over an hour of match time, the mood around a damp Jerry Yeagley Field grew as cheerful as it did anxious.
Senior forward Ryan Wittenbrink’s perfectly taken free kick in the 25th minute gave Indiana men’s soccer and its fans a reason to believe in the dream of snatching a share of the Big Ten regular season title. However, holding onto a win against No. 8 Maryland in Sunday’s match became stressful as the clock ticked.
The Hoosiers invited pressure for long stretches after taking the lead, giving the Terrapins plenty of chances to pick out the right moments to strike. Soon enough, the atmosphere would end up matching the gloomy Bloomington weather.
“Quiet,” Indiana head coach Todd Yeagley said about the locker room postgame. “They knew what was on the line. They’re disappointed.”
Maryland saved its best attacking sequences for the final stretch of play and found a dramatic equalizer in the 87th minute. By salvaging a 1-1 draw on decision day, Maryland kept its 3-point advantage over Indiana in the standings and won its third conference championship outright.
All it took for Indiana to drop its most-needed points of the entire season was an avoidable clinical moment lasting mere seconds. As was the case in the team’s previous disappointing results in Big Ten play, a defensive lapse of concentration paired with dangerous service into the penalty area doomed the Hoosiers.
Despite packing the penalty area in expectation of the Terrapins’ desperation in attack, several Hoosier defenders stood motionless as an overhead cross from redshirt sophomore midfielder Joshua Bolma floated toward the back post. Senior defender Daniel Munie was left in a one-on-one shoving match, which junior forward Stefan Copetti won to free himself for a powerful header.
This tendency originally put Indiana in an unfavorable situation heading into Sunday’s match and the final slate of conference matches.
A similarly blown lead occurred in Indiana’s 1-1 draw with Michigan State on Sept. 23, while other miniscule but hurtful defensive miscues resulted in three draws through the Hoosiers’ first five Big Ten matches.
“All those (results), you flip those and we’re having the trophy today,” Yeagley said.
Yeagley and the squad understood they had to win out in order to dig themselves out of the hole in the standings, and Indiana responded with a pair of wins against Penn State and Wisconsin to put the pressure back on the other contenders. Ultimately, though, the climb back up the table fell just short.
“We had those chances early,” Yeagley said. “We didn’t convert in those moments. We have to be better to make (Maryland) get two goals. Once they went really heavy with numbers forward, you’re naturally going to be in a deeper (defensive) block.”
Winning hardware is the name of the game for this program, but the Hoosiers can look forward to the Big Ten Tournament — another chance to do just that — with some positive takeaways from their end-of-season form.
On the attacking side, Wittenbrink continues to influence the outcome of important matches and has grown into one of the most premier forwards in the country through his consistency.
“He’s been clinical all year. He’s been feeling it,” Yeagley said about Wittenbrink. “It was not Ryan’s best day offensively, but even those moments are reasons why we might extend his minutes. He can change the game.”
In net, the Hoosiers may finally have enough evidence to decide on their No. 1 option heading into the postseason.
Junior JT Harms kept the score in the Hoosiers’ favor for as long as possible with a heroic performance, making three saves on four Maryland shots on target. Overall, Harms kept a calm demeanor when trouble came the way of him and the team’s back line.
“He had a good game,” Yeagely said about Harms. “(There were) routine but dangerous moments that he either held his line and let other guys make the play or he came out and made the play. That was positive for us.”
Holding a top-10 conference rival to a draw, especially with the number of chances the Hoosiers had, is motivation enough for another deep run through bracket play.
“It was very physical,” Yeagley said. “Both teams wanted it really bad. It had a postseason feel. Anytime you get that before it is the true postseason, that’s a good thing. I like the way we competed.”
The first half of the real postseason will get underway on Friday, as Indiana will play Penn State at Bill Armstrong Stadium as the No. 4 seed in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament.