Overachieving is a foreign notion to Indiana men’s soccer.
With the Hoosiers primed to make an NCAA record 22nd College Cup appearance against the University of Pittsburgh in Friday night’s semifinal match, you would be hard-pressed to find anyone shocked. But this group, while of course maintaining lofty expectations from the outset of the season, spent months trying to answer damning questions about their potential.
Todd Yeagley — entering his fifth Final Four as head coach — understands better than most what it means to don the Cream and Crimson. He knows that, when the harsh lights flicker on and the cold, late autumn winds roar, the IU trident serves as a motivator; a symbol of the manic drive for greatness that has conquered this journey before.
“Every group that we have, there’s a belief that is part of wearing the jersey,” Yeagley said Monday. “There’s a heck of a lot of pride and responsibility that goes into wearing the jersey and our guys feel that. It’s not a pressure, it’s not a burden, it actually frees them to just know that there’s something really big they’re representing.”
History and tradition loom large over the program. But in this postseason, the Hoosiers haven’t succumbed to it. They took down Maryland in the Big Ten Tournament semifinals a little over a week after the Terrapins negated their chance at the regular season crown. They topped Marshall in the NCAA Sweet 16, perhaps avenging their crushing defeat in the 2020-2021 College Cup finals.
In Friday night’s clash with Pitt, which kicks off at 8:30 p.m. at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, North Carolina, the Hoosiers will look to repeat history instead of rewriting it. It was only about a year and a half ago when now senior forward Herbert Endeley’s late match goal sent the Panthers home and propelled Indiana into the national championship.
That was the past, though. Pitt head coach Jay Vidovich, who played for Indiana in 1978, was blunt when talking about the differing circumstances. Rosters have shuffled, coaches have departed and this edition of the matchup will take place in front of thousands of eager spectators as opposed to barren bleachers.
Yeagley knows this isn’t the same situation. Still, he said the explosive and high-powered nature of Vidovich’s side has persisted since their last meeting.
“They have some of the better attackers in the country. The good news is we’ve faced some teams with some similar talent,” Yeagley said. “We’re going to go out really confident. We’re not a stubborn team. We can adapt and evolve and find a way in the end to win. In the end it’s about winning and advancing.”
It’s rather unsurprising that Pitt, who has been one of the more prominent teams in collegiate soccer as of late, has some overlap with the Hoosiers. Indiana senior defender Nyk Sessock transferred from the Panthers after his sophomore campaign.
He was a member of the backline that shutout Pitt in the last match, and he’ll be in the same spot this time around. And just like last time, he’ll be positioned alongside seniors Daniel Munie and Brett Bebej, along with junior Joey Maher.
The group’s chemistry is obvious. It’s clear on the field with constant communication and synchronous movements, and it’s evident in their relationships off the field.
“Nyk came in and immediately gelled well with the team,” Yeagley said. “(He) doesn’t have any hard feelings, he had a good experience at Pitt. He was just looking for a little bit something different, and he’s been really happy here.”
In a postseason that has seen the past and present ferociously collide, attacking play is a facet of the Hoosiers that is slightly different. While playing a sizeable role in previous seasons, redshirt senior forward Ryan Wittenbrink has become the engine of the offense and a bonafide star.
Sophomore attacker Sam Sarver is one of the handful of starters who did not play in the last matchup with Pitt. Despite struggling to find the back of the net throughout most of the season, his desire and effort are magnified week after week.
Though creating danger on the attack is crucial, defending is paramount. In College Cup matches where chances come few and far between, it is often the backlines that are thrust into the spotlight.
“It’s been together. It feeds on each other,” Yeagley said of the previous defensive performances. “It starts up top. Our defending starts with our strikers, and the commitment to take away things from other teams. Always the best compliment you get: ‘well we just didn’t have our game today.’ Typically, Indiana has something to do with that.”
At programs like Indiana’s, the weight of history and the implications that come from the uniform can be overwhelming. On Friday night though, the Hoosiers — in their 50th season — could inch one step closer to writing some history of their own.