Maouloune Goumballe stayed rooted to the halfway line. Sam Sarver paced around the touchline inconsolably.
Between the two stood a makeshift stage, quickly assembled for the national champions.
Through his hazy tears and cream-colored jersey, Sarver could barely watch as bright white confetti exploded into the night sky and spread across midfield at WakeMed Soccer Park.
Neither were in reach of the streamers. By the time gravity pulled them back down, a pack of players in orange and blue jerseys had already started the celebrations.
For the second time in three seasons, No. 13 seed Indiana men’s soccer came one match short on its quest for a ninth national championship. Instead, No. 3 seed Syracuse University edged out the Cream and Crimson through a 7-6 score in a decisive penalty shootout after the teams drew 2-2 through regulation and double overtime.
Goumballe, who was one of the Hoosiers’ brightest players in open play, missed Indiana’s final penalty attempt in the sudden death stage. Moments later, Orange senior midfielder Amferny Sinclair won Syracuse its first national title with a high-rising spot kick.
“Not much you can really say or do for these guys,” Indiana head coach Todd Yeagley said. “There was a lot of tears on the field because there’s a lot invested. These guys care so much about the opportunity to wear the jersey and what it means, so they invest a lot. When you do that, it can hurt more.”
Goumballe and Sarver, senior and sophomore forwards, respectively, are in different stages of their careers with Indiana. Goumballe only has one extra year of eligibility with an unclear future, while Sarver still has multiple years with the Hoosiers should he choose to play a full career in Bloomington.
All of Indiana’s players shared in the crushing disappointment of Monday’s result in Cary, North Carolina, but the meaning behind the loss takes different forms between the younger players – like Sarver – who got their first taste of this pain and the veterans — like Goumballe — who must accept their second shortcoming.
“Just speechless,” junior goalkeeper JT Harms said. “I thought we deserved better, especially the seniors — they deserved everything. The impact they’ve had on this team and program will go beyond this result today. It’s going to take some time to regroup.”
Defender Daniel Munie, forward Ryan Wittenbrink and forward Herbert Endeley — to name a few — are all seniors who just played their final match for Indiana. All three contributed greatly to the team’s late-season run. Munie and Wittenbrink were named to the College Cup All-Tournament team. Endeley equalized Monday’s final at 2-2 with an 80th-minute blast.
“I want to thank the seniors to get this team back to the biggest stage, it’s so hard to do,” Yeagley said. “The young guys, that’ll be their charge to help us continue to be in these moments.”
The Hoosiers’ youth also excelled and experienced tremendous growth this season, playing a crucial role in the team’s turnaround and restoring balance after some inconsistencies in Big Ten play.
Sarver and sophomore midfielder Patrick McDonald stepped up in the NCAA Tournament, securing Indiana’s 2-0 Elite Eight win over the University of North Carolina at Greensboro with a mature linkup for the Hoosiers’ second goal in transition. McDonald became a staple in Indiana’s midfield and proved he was ready for the biggest moment with a half-volley finish to equalize 1-1 against Syracuse.
“(He has the) ability to cover ground and make good decisions for such a young player,” Yeagley said about McDonald. “He’s got a tremendous future ahead and he’s just getting started.”
When the second overtime concluded and confirmed the match would be decided through penalties – arguably the most pressure a player can experience during a match – Yeagley and his staff included players like freshman forward Luka Bezerra and redshirt junior midfielder Quinten Helmer in their selection.
Neither was on the pitch for any of the 110 previous minutes, but slotted home each of their attempts.
“Those are difficult decisions,” Yeagley said. “Sometimes we try to get them into the game before, but it was a really fast game to jump into. They’re clinical in training. We felt comfortable and they felt comfortable they could make a play.”
Even though a large group of players is set to leave, the remaining squad knows it's in good hands and has a belief it can keep challenging on the national stage. The veterans have made meaningful relationships with the underclassmen, leaving behind a positive, motivating legacy both on and off the pitch.
“It’s a special locker room,” Harms said. “Even though there’s continuity year-to-year there’s always going to be some new players and players moving on. Just to be able to sit in the dining room and see our seniors talking with freshman like they’ve known each other for years is pretty special.”
Monday’s loss was Yeagley’s third in a row in the national championship after winning his first and only title as the Hoosiers’ head coach in 2012. As painful as the result will be to live with and progress past, the ability to consistently get this far in the first place is cause for hope for the remaining players and incoming signees.
“I don’t think about it as a lost opportunity,” Yeagley said. “If we continue to do things well and have kids that want to be part of this program, good things will happen. We will do everything we can to keep this program moving forward.”