As he made his way across Jerry Yeagley Field toward the locker room Sunday night, Indiana men’s soccer head coach Todd Yeagley keenly watched as his players shared a parting moment with the Hoosier faithful following the team’s final home match.
Yeagley isn’t usually one to get as fired up over wins as players like sophomore forward Sam Sarver or senior defender Nyk Sessock, but the Hoosiers’ Sweet Sixteen victory over the Marshall University Thundering Herd was a special occasion. Not only did Indiana earn sweet revenge for its 2020 National Championship defeat, but the program advanced to its 28th Elite Eight in its 50th season — a national record that keeps on growing.
Holding true to a promise made to his players before the match, Yeagley joined in the postgame antics.
When Yeagley reached the IU Crimson Guard on the northside, emotion took control. A few cheer-inducing hand motions and a charged-up punch through the brisk air later, Yeagley and the Hoosiers were sent off to the next stage with their heads held high.
“You want to have it be real genuine,” Yeagley said. “Sometimes you just feel it where you have a thought in your mind and you let it go, just like a player would. You can’t overdo it all the time, but the actual message (to the team), there’s not much thought beforehand — I don’t script things. It’s more of what does the team need tone-wise and energy.”
As has always been the case for a program of such stature, though, Indiana isn’t satisfied. Only a ninth title will do. With a berth to the College Cup up for grabs, No. 13 seed Indiana will face No. 12 seed University of North Carolina at Greensboro at 5 p.m. Saturday in Greensboro, North Carolina.
The Hoosiers’ chances for a spot in this tournament — let alone a top-16 seed — hung in the balance ahead of the Big Ten Tournament. They’ve flipped the narrative about their season since, making a strong run to end the conference schedule and locking teams down defensively with back-to-back shutout wins on the national stage.
Yeagley saw the signs for a deep run long ago.
“This is a great situation to be in. There’s only a handful (of teams) getting this chance,” Yeagley said. “The guys, we told them weeks ago, ‘Get on top of your stuff (academically). We would love to be really busy for many weeks ahead.’ And we are.”
Even though the matches at this point in the tournament are spaced out around one week apart, the players’ fitness is still important to monitor closely with the extra wear and tear. There aren’t any injury concerns for the Hoosiers, and they’d like to keep it that way, avoiding a high-intensity training regimen at this point of the schedule.
“Just making sure we’re keeping them fresh and fine-tuning some areas,” Yeagley said. “There’s so much that we’ve done through this season (with) the progression of this group. Although we’re getting better, you can’t make leaps and bounds in the weeks ahead.”
Indiana will need to stay in top form on both ends of the pitch to make it past UNCG. As the Spartans showed with wins through penalties against both Ohio State and No. 3 seed Stanford University, this team is no pushover.
The Spartans lost just one match all season, compiling a 13-1-6 record deserving of the program’s first-ever national seed. Hoosier senior forward Ryan Wittenbrink’s nine-goal, nine-assist season for 27 total points is an impressive feat only two other players in the country have reached, but the Spartan attack boasts its own trio of stat-filling talent.
Fifth-year forward Marco Afonso, graduate forward Ismail El Harchi and sophomore midfielder J.C. Ngando have all recorded 20+ point campaigns, leading UNCG to a remarkable 2.3 goals per game.
“I’m not surprised to see them in this game,” Yeagley said about UNCG. “I’ve seen a little bit of them and talked to some coaches that rated them. On paper everyone’s going ‘It’s an upset’ against Stanford because of the seeding situation, but they’re very deserving of being in this round.”
Other than Wittenbrink, who’s in the midst of a seven-match point streak after his corner kick assist against Marshall, Sarver has the necessary tools to unlock the Spartans’ defense.
Against Saint Louis University’s compact setup in the second round, Sarver’s relentless attitude chasing the ball and pace in possession went to waste. The Billikens sat deep and made the Hoosiers move the ball around as a unit. Marshall had more of an incentive to build out of the back and move upfield, which allowed Sarver to use his talents by putting pressure on the back line and creating loose balls.
Yeagley sees UNCG’s style of play as reason for Sarver to be Indiana’s difference-maker again.
“The Marshall game was more open, his athleticism and pressing ability was important in that game,” Yeagley said about Sarver. “(UNCG) is very capable playing out of the back and we’ll pick and choose when and where we press them. Sammy’s piece there is incredibly important because of his aerobics, ability to close space, doubling back – those are all little traps Sammy’s really good at.”
Both NCAA Tournament matches for each team have been tightly contested, but the attacking firepower between the two creates the potential for a high-scoring affair.
If the match does extend into overtime or even penalties, UNCG’s two most recent matches could either give the Spartans a tactical advantage or creep back up as physical burdens.
Saturday’s Elite Eight matchup will be broadcast on ESPN+.