Rutgers freshman forward Ian Abbey gleefully trotted around the pitch gesturing toward his ring finger. The home crowd’s excitement was palpable — they fully understood the message. With Abbey’s 85th minute goal, the Scarlet Knights all but secured their Big Ten Tournament championship win over Indiana men’s soccer.
The Hoosiers know the feeling of heartbreak. They felt it on Oct. 30, when an 87th equalizer from Maryland negated Indiana’s chance at the regular season crown. Surprisingly enough, the loss to Rutgers on Sunday afternoon appeared to take less of a toll on the players.
After the buzzer signaled the conclusion of the regular season finale, redshirt senior forward Ryan Wittenbrink and senior defender Nyk Sessock were just a couple of motionless Hoosiers whose eyes were locked on the opponent’s celebration.
Yet, as Rutgers fans showered Yurcak Field in Piscataway, New Jersey, on Sunday, Indiana’s response was less dejected. They know this isn’t the end of the road.
“We have to get ready for the next one,” head coach Todd Yeagley said after the match. “That’s all you can do. That’s the world we live in. The next one is the one.”
Throughout the regular season, Rutgers boasted the highest scoring offense in the conference. Led by senior forward MD Myers — lethal goal scorer and Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year —, as well as a plentiful supporting cast, slowing down the Scarlet Knights has been an arduous endeavor for every Big Ten squad.
“They’re lethal in transition,” Yeagley said. “Every time that we gave them something they were dangerous and created some chances.”
Once Rutgers’ sophomore midfielder Matthew Acosta found the back of the net in the fourth minute on Sunday with a lightning-quick counterattack, it was obvious the Hoosiers were in for a rude awakening. But even as the Scarlet Knights continued to push the center back partnership of redshirt senior Daniel Munie and junior Joey Maher on its heels, they struggled to break the match open.
What was the reason for that? Junior goalkeeper JT Harms. While the final line of three goals allowed is hardly a noteworthy feat, the fact that the box score could have easily read five or six is a testament to Harms’ performance.
“At this point you’re playing against good teams. They’re going to get some chances,” Yeagley said. “It was nice to see JT come up with a couple big saves. I think that’s a really big takeaway this time of year is your keeper playing well. That will help us in the next phase.”
Since the departure of former Indiana star goalkeeper Roman Celentano, the position seemed murky at best. For a chunk of the season, Yeagley rotated Harms and redshirt junior Bryant Pratt, as neither could truly pull ahead to tighten a grasp on the starting job.
What was clear from the regular season opener against reigning national champion Clemson, however, was Harms had a penchant for big saves in clutch moments. That much was evident in his performances in the tail-end of the regular season, as well as throughout the Big Ten Tournament.
Then, in the biggest match of Harms’ Hoosier career on Sunday, he put on Indiana’s best goalkeeping display of the season.
In the 29th minute, Myers had a golden opportunity to double Rutgers’ advantage. He fired a powerful header on frame, but a spectacular fist save from Harms re-directed the strike toward the crossbar, then eventually cleared away.
With 14 Scarlet Knights’ shots, and eight on goal, Harms was peppered virtually the entire match. In the 74th minute, the hosts had their first of multiple opportunities to put the match away for good. Graduate student midfielder Pablo Avila had a seemingly open net to slot away Rutgers’ third goal, but a diving Harms had other plans.
There’s no doubt that the defeat stung. For some of Indiana’s longest-tenured veterans, it may linger even after the NCAA Tournament. But to Yeagley, the performance was promising. Perhaps most importantly, as Indiana moves onto the final segment of its 50th season, it knows it has its guy between the posts.
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