Junior defender Joey Maher joyfully wrapped his arms around a pair of younger teammates at the sound of the full-time whistle. The group shared in celebration, but only Maher could feel and truly understand the result’s added significance.
In its first-ever meeting 559 days ago, Indiana men’s soccer and Marshall University capped off a one-of-a-kind shortened spring season with everything on the line in the College Cup Final. Fate didn’t favor the Hoosiers, who watched the Thundering Herd snatch the national championship away with an overtime winner.
Most of that Indiana squad from the matchup on May 17, 2021, including Maher and the rest of the starters on the back line, have lived with the disappointment of the result and moved forward on more quests for the program’s ninth star. On Sunday, the Hoosiers took a major step in the recovery process.
With its fans in attendance for the final time at Bill Armstrong Stadium this season, Indiana enacted revenge on Marshall with a 1-0 win in the Sweet 16. Now, the Hoosiers are into the Elite Eight and just three wins away from completing the daunting climb back to the top of college soccer.
“The students and the town came out tonight,” Yeagley said. “You could feel the energy of the crowd feeding our team.”
Attacking talent was spread throughout both ends of the pitch, but the defensive stability of both sides made scoring a challenge. The Hoosiers dominated possession for long periods of the rematch, keeping the Thundering Herds’ potent forwards less comfortable and effective.
The opening goal proved to be all the Hoosiers needed, and it came through the manipulation of the tactical advantage they had in the set piece department. The Hoosiers earned 13 total corners to the Thundering Herds’ lonely one, piling on the pressure throughout the first half without reaping the reward.
Using the halftime break to their advantage, the Hoosiers made sure they’d capitalize if similar opportunities came.
“The guys took ownership, they made an adjustment at half,” Yeagley said. “We changed our runs. That’s when you love it, when the guys are solving things.”
Senior defender Brett Bebej was the beneficiary. After beating his man with a run through the 18-yard box, Bebej rose high at the far post to head an inswinging corner kick into the back of the net in the 47th minute.
With that moment came elation, relief and a towering pile of crimson jerseys wrapped around each other at the corner flag.
“That’s one of the greatest moments of my career, I’m at a loss of words,” Bebej said. “Coach usually puts me around the back of the box. I kind of just attacked it.”
Both before and after the deciding goal, Indiana’s attacking shape generated plenty of chances and kept Marshall’s back line working tirelessly.
Even though sophomore forward Samuel Sarver’s one-on-one shot in the opening minutes trickled just wide of goal, the miss didn’t discourage him. The Hoosiers looked to harness his speed and high-tempo playstyle to punish the Thundering Herd in transition, but the same qualities made the difference when the team pressed high and won the ball back countless times in deep areas.
“You just don’t want to deal with him,” Yeagley said about Sarver. “He is relentless, and Maouloune (Goumballe) is the same. I don’t want to diminish it to (hard work) — their timing, angles, how they step was really good.”
Yeagley spoke about the Hoosiers’ defense usually building out of the back and helping the attack transition up the pitch to score goals this season. That wasn’t the case in Sunday’s match, though, as their team pressing and forwards’ attitude when hunting the ball forced the Thundering Herd to concentrate more so on not losing possession than their own attacking ambitions.
“It’s not a front three that’s just pressing together,” Maher said. “It’s eleven men defending and working together, organizationally sound. That’s something that’s special with our front guys and their pressing: their willingness and desire to do anything it takes.”
With time against them and left with little options otherwise, the Thundering Herd exposed themselves defensively and made a determined effort toward equalizing. Their quality up front meant chances were inevitable, but the Hoosiers remained composed and allowed little to nothing from close range.
Though he wasn’t tested as often, junior goalkeeper JT Harms made two crucial saves and ultimately earned another clean sheet. He’s now helped the team get back-to-back shutouts to start its NCAA Tournament run.
For Yeagley, the difference between that painful night two seasons ago and Sunday’s result comes down to the growth the entire veteran core has gone through in that time. With experience on their side, the Hoosiers are once again so close to turning their dreams into reality.
“Those guys that played in that game, I look at the improvements they made,” Yeagley said. “Look at Ryan Wittenbrink, what type of player he is today.”
Next up, No. 13 seed Indiana will face No. 12 seed University of North Carolina Greensboro in the Elite Eight on either Friday or Saturday in Greensboro, North Carolina, with a trip to the College Cup on the line.
“We’re dancing,” Bebej said. “The team is ready, we’re ready for the next challenge.”