Then-sophomore defender Brett Bebej was inconsolable. Former Indiana men’s soccer star forward Victor Bezerra sat motionless, seemingly unaware of the commotion that surrounded him.
A sea of green absorbed the illuminated field on May 17, 2021, at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, North Carolina, as Marshall University celebrated its first-ever NCAA Championship. The Hoosiers — who were on the cusp of their elusive ninth title — simply didn’t have enough left in the tank to outlast the Thundering Herd throughout the overtime period.
To coach Todd Yeagley, the defeat still stings.
“You’re never ready for it. There’s really not that much you can do after the game — you’re just there for the guys,” Yeagley said on Wednesday. “You just feel gutted, and you don’t have any perspective at the time. It was obviously just a very sad locker room.”
The 2020 NCAA Championship result will never change. But that’s in the past now. On Sunday at 6:30 p.m. at Bill Armstrong Stadium, the Hoosiers have an opportunity to knock off Marshall and punch their ticket to the Elite Eight.
Though the roster has shifted from two seasons ago, stylistically, the Thundering Herd figure to pose few surprises in the Sweet 16. They maintain the same international, technically sound makeup that guided them to glory in 2020.
Despite an 11-3-4 season in which the Herd performed well against some prominent sides, they entered the NCAA Tournament unseeded. Yet, after taking down Elon University in the first round and No. 4 seed University of Virginia in penalties in the second round, the lack of a home field advantage has appeared negligible.
While Marshall won’t necessarily provide a drastically different brand of play than the Hoosiers have seen in the past, that is not to say the visitors’ high-flying attack won’t cause challenges.
“They’ve replaced some really good players with more good players,” Yeagley said. “They’re individually very gifted and they’ll be expansive. You rarely saw Saint Louis’s wingbacks up in the front half of the field for them, (but) you’ll see them all the time for Marshall. It’s going to be one heck of a challenge.”
Perhaps the most important factor in the match for Indiana will be its backline. Composed of fullbacks Bebej and senior Nyk Sessock, along with redshirt senior Daniel Munie and junior Joey Maher solidifying the middle, the group has established itself among the best in the Big Ten.
Maturity and experience accompany the group’s defensive prowess. In fact, the Hoosiers trotted out that exact backline against Marshall when they faced in the national title match roughly a year and a half ago.
“We’re obviously excited to see (Maher) and Munie, and Bebej and Nyk, as a more mature back line, face this really dynamic attack a year and a half later,” Yeagley said.
With a regular season that saw Indiana face a number of potent attacks, both within and outside the conference, the group has been able to develop weekly.
“That’s probably the biggest positive,” Yeagley said of the backline’s stability. “Look at some of the attacking teams we’ve played. I mean I thought we did a great job against Portland’s front three and they’ve been a nemesis to everyone this year. They’re not going to be, one, rattled by the moment, or two, not prepared to handle that type of player.”
In training this week, Yeagley said sessions have been shortened and less intense, albeit sometimes distracted by the ongoing FIFA World Cup. With a focus on tailoring nuances of attacking play and breaking down Marshall’s tendencies on film, the Hoosiers have had an opportunity to fully rest and recover.
The extended break was needed for the backline and the midfielders who log large portions of matches, but also for sophomore attackers Sam Sarver and Tommy Mihalic. The duo was phased out and hardly featured in the win over Saint Louis, but Yeagley said they could be called on much more against the Herd.
Similar to Rutgers and Penn State, Marshall’s greediness on the attack leaves vulnerabilities in transition. Speed is crucial to taking advantage of those moments, and Sarver, Mihalic and 2020 Tournament hero Herbert Endeley may very well carry the offensive load.
The narrative surrounding Sunday’s match is obvious, and Yeagley said the players won’t need any extra motivation to excel. Still, staying composed and level-headed will be key in what could be a highly tense contest.
“Don’t need to fuel that fire, if you will,” Yeagley said. “We want to play passionate but not emotional.”
Indiana’s Sweet 16 match will be broadcast on ESPN+.