“Pressure!” “Come on offense!”
As Indiana men’s soccer fought for 74 scoreless minutes Sunday against Saint Louis University in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, Hoosier fans grew rapidly impatient with the hosts’ lack of urgency. For a while, head coach Todd Yeagley’s squad appeared content to slowly build out of the back and let the Billikens come to them.
Then, in the 75th minute, Indiana adventured on a particularly dangerous attack. It was spearheaded by someone who has become a revelation for the Hoosiers this season: redshirt senior Ryan Wittenbrink — a super-sub turned superstar.
Wittenbrink, as he has done often, cut inside and took a few light touches while creating space around a pair of defenders. When the opening was unveiled, he fired a right-footed blast into the bottom corner. With his ninth goal of the season as the difference in Sunday’s 1-0 victory, Indiana sealed its birth into its eighth consecutive NCAA Sweet 16, the longest active streak in college soccer.
“When I score goals, (I) kind of black out a little bit,” Wittenbrink said after the match. “I just cut in, got a good angle and was able to put it back stick. I can’t describe the feeling. There’s nothing better.”
Yeagley, who recruited Wittenbrink from Libertyville, Illinois, commended his forward’s effort on the deciding goal.
“To see a fifth-year step up and play a really mature game but also make the decisive play is great,” Yeagley said. “As soon as he cuts in, you get excited. Witt’s doing such a good job reading the defenses, he’s like the quarterback. He just read it and he’s a clinical finisher.”
Aside from Wittenbrink’s goal, dangerous chances were scarce for both sides. For the first 15 minutes of the match, the Billikens jumped on the front foot and created at least a sense of hostility for the Hoosiers’ backline.
Perhaps the visitor’s greatest opportunity came in the 14th minute after a scrum in Indiana’s penalty area led to a slow dribbling ball toward Saint Louis junior midfielder Alex Shterenberg. Junior goalkeeper JT Harms was caught out of position, and Shterenberg’s low strike looked destined for the bottom corner.
Yet, in came a sliding junior defender in Joey Maher, whose block cleared the shot safely away from goal.
“They , and I thought we didn’t have enough composure,” Yeagley said. “At the same time, I thought our guys bodied well. That’s really what it was this game, just trying to get guys out of position so they couldn’t get in scoring spots.”
As the match wore on, Indiana settled in and controlled the tempo. Redshirt senior defender Daniel Munie and Maher directed play from the back but largely stayed conservative until Wittenbrink’s goal. However, Wittenbrink said the team’s play in the second half was much smarter.
“Just being more calm on the ball, I think you saw that. We had a lot more possession in the second half,” Wittenbrink said of the team’s halftime adjustments. “Just be calm and collected, and just be smarter basically. I think everyone adjusted well, and I thought we controlled the second half.”
Though Harms wasn’t called on to make a number of terrific saves, his presence on set pieces and crosses was crucial. With comfort in the final line of defense, Indiana’s backline could push forward and aid in attacks on numerous occasions.
As a result of the Hoosiers' steady improvement over the season, they are starting to enter very familiar territory in the heart of the postseason.
“There are so many things that I’ve experienced as a player, as assistant coach and now a head coach. There’s just a lot of winning culture here,” Yeagley said. “It’s just great to see this group continue it.”
Now, Indiana turns to a much-anticipated rematch. Next Sunday, the Hoosiers will host Marshall University in Bill Armstrong Stadium and look to avenge their 2021 NCAA Championship defeat. First kick is slated for 6:30 p.m.