For long stretches of Sunday’s second round NCAA Tournament match, Indiana men’s soccer’s possession against Saint Louis University felt pointless.
The Billikens completely shut down most of the Hoosiers’ attempts at moving the ball forward, resulting in audible frustration shared by head coach Todd Yeagley and the bundled-up fans seated around a bitterly cold Bill Armstrong Stadium. Not many signs pointed toward a shift in the scoreless deadlock.
Despite failing to get his usual number of touches during the second half, senior forward Ryan Wittenbrink knew what to do when space opened for him on the far-left wing in the 75th minute.
The Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year fearlessly dribbled the ball toward his helpless defender, cut to his right foot and — blackout.
“It’s exciting, I can’t describe the feeling,” Wittenbrink said.
When he snapped out of his euphoric state, Wittenbrink was in the final strides of his celebratory jog toward the southside stands. He had just fired home the opening — and ultimately winning — goal for Indiana into the furthest pocket of the lower-right netting.
As the relieved fans donning cream and crimson clapped and hollered in front of him, Wittenbrink interrupted his run with a few penguin-like waddle motions. It’s a celebration he’s resorted to after several of his now-nine total goals this season.
“As soon as he cuts in, it’s exciting,” Yeagley said. “You can’t solve both (inside and outside runs), so you have to take something away. Witt’s done such a good job of reading the defense, seeing the second defender and his movement.”
No. 13 seed Indiana’s 1-0 victory over Saint Louis as a result of Wittenbrink’s timely strike means it advances to its eighth-straight Sweet 16.
“This has been the toughest game historically for our program,” Yeagley said about past letdowns in the NCAA Tournament. “Really cagey first or second round.”
The Hoosiers’ magic number is down to four wins in their quest for a ninth star, and it wouldn’t be so without their magician in attack.
Even though he wasn’t involved in buildups often or able to threaten consistently due to the Billikens’ 4-4-2 shape and aggressive man-marking, Wittenbrink’s short memory and composed demeanor made the difference in the later stages.
“They collapsed well and made the lines really tight,” Yeagley said. “Witt didn’t have a lot of room to go at those defenders jamming those spaces. You can’t try to make a play you’re not ready to make, and I thought Witt did a nice job of not overdoing it because he hadn’t touched the ball as much.”
Leading into the season, many questions were asked about who would step up in former star striker Victor Bezerra’s cleats. Even when results were positive for the Hoosiers, the goalscoring burden didn’t completely center around Wittenbrink.
Wittenbrink’s growth and talent was evident from the opening set of matches, but he’s gained the confidence and ability to take over matches completely — at the best time possible for his team.
He’s now up to 26 total points this season, scoring or assisting in each of Indiana’s last six matches. That includes a free-kick goal in the regular-season finale against Maryland, the game-winner against Penn State in the Big Ten quarterfinal and assists in both the semifinal and final — all extremely meaningful matches.
His efforts turned Indiana’s uncertain postseason chances into a top-16 seed, and now, the Hoosiers are one of the final 16 teams around the country still in the fight for a national championship.
“I can attribute a lot of my success to my teammates getting me in good spots,” Wittenbrink said. “It’s been a fun season.”
Wittenbrink’s path to taking on such a massive role for Indiana started similarly to many others who commit to the historic program: on the sidelines, in the shadows.
Yeagley said most recruits aren’t expected to see much, if any, playing time over their first two seasons, and they’re aware of what they must improve on to earn opportunities as upperclassmen. In Wittenbrink’s case, Yeagley knew what the forward could become down the line if he put in the work, citing Wittenbrink’s ability to strike the ball differently than most American prospects.
“To see a fifth-year step up and play a really mature game and make the decisive play is great,” Yeagley said. “It’s just a good example. There’ll be another guy in that locker room that’s in that boat right now, is a redshirt or hasn’t played much. There’s a window.”
Others will certainly get their chances at some point, but for now, Wittenbrink is leading the way in his final season with the Hoosiers. He’s proven he can single-handedly help Indiana find a way to survive and advance. The program may have thought it lost an unreplaceable game changer up front in Bezerra, but Wittenbrink is playing to that level.
“Everything for Ryan has come pretty easy until here,” Yeagley said. “He’s met the challenge. It’s pushed him, he’s been uncomfortable, and he’s grown because of that.”
Wittenbrink and Indiana will get another home match for the Sweet Sixteen after Marshall University upset No. 4 seed University of Virginia in penalties Sunday. The Hoosiers and Thundering Herd will meet in a rematch of the spring 2021 National Championship game at 6:30 p.m. Nov. 27 in Bloomington.