The ball was slowly trickling toward the top of the box. All 11 Penn State players were in their own 18-yard box, tirelessly attempting to ward off pressure from the Indiana men’s soccer attackers.
After a Nittany Lion deflection redirected Hoosier freshman forward Luka Bezerra’s strike, redshirt senior forward Ryan Wittenbrink came bursting out of nowhere with his eyes laser-focused on the goal. Wittenbrink fired a powerful, low blast that weaved through traffic and into the bottom right-hand netting.
Penn State senior goalkeeper Kris Shakes could only watch as Indiana snatched a one-goal advantage. Unbeknownst to Shakes, that one goal would send his team home from the Big Ten Tournament.
“We kind of were unlucky to not have a goal up until that point, I thought,” Wittenbrink said after Indiana’s 1-0 win in the Big Ten quarterfinals Friday night. “I was trying to encourage everyone and make sure that we try to take advantage of the opportunities we were getting.”
Despite dominating the first half, as the Hoosiers have done time and again this season, they entered the break with a rather unsettling lead. It was eerily similar to the regular season finale against No. 7 Maryland less than a week ago.
But even as Penn State pushed Indiana to the brink in the final 10 minutes, the hosts never relinquished the advantage. The Nittany Lions grew desperate for an equalizer, eventually resorting to chippy play and blatant violations.
Still, with a rowdy home crowd behind them, hungry to see their Hoosiers advance, head coach Todd Yeagley’s squad sweetened the bitter feeling that the Terrapins brought to Bill Armstrong Stadium.
With the 87th Terrapin equalizer — which buried the Hoosiers’ regular season title hopes — fresh in the team’s minds, redshirt senior defender Daniel Munie had a simple plan to close out Friday’s match.
“See the game out, basically. Be smart. Don’t do anything stupid,” Munie said. “We needed this win for so many levels.”
Munie, who is regarded as a quiet, but confident, leader amongst his peers, is an unquestioned top talent in collegiate soccer. Earlier in the day before Friday’s match, Munie was awarded his second consecutive Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year award.
As the Nittany Lions’ urgency for a goal heightened, they began to send attackers forward in droves. It was often Munie, who plays with a combination of grace and reckless abandon, flying around to clear away danger.
Like Munie, Wittenbrink was named to the First-Team All-Big Ten prior to the match. Unlike the team captain, who has been well-regarded since his freshman year, Wittenbrink’s ongoing breakout campaign came in his final season in a crimson uniform.
His panache with the ball and sudden movements that fool even the best defenders were on full display Friday night. With his game-winning goal, Wittenbrink has now found the back of the net eight times this season.
“Ryan, like he’s been all year, was just a problem,” Yeagley said.
The hole left by former Indiana star Victor Bezerra, who is currently with Chicago Fire FC, was expected to be glaring this season. Both from a goalscoring and leadership perspective, the big question was how the Hoosiers would fare in his absence.
But with the emergence of Wittenbrink and the continued dominance of Munie, they are moving onto the Big Ten Tournament semifinals. After taking down No. 8- seeded Northwestern Friday night, Maryland set the stage for a quick rematch with the Hoosiers in the next round.
“The guys are excited to play Maryland. We’ve played them in so many big games,” Yeagley said. “Although a home game against Northwestern would have been great, I really think our guys deep down were hoping to play Maryland.”
Munie echoed his coach’s sentiment.
“We’re looking forward to it. We’re happy they won,” Munie said. “It’ll be good to go play at their field, obviously get some revenge on them.”
While the Big Ten Tournament is clearly the primary focus, it’s worth noting the NCAA Tournament implications of the Hoosiers’ win. Though they are still not guaranteed a top-16 seed, they have all but locked up an opportunity to receive an at-large bid.
The Hoosiers’ semifinal match against the Terrapins will take place Wednesday, Nov. 9, in College Park, Maryland.