Sophomore forward Tommy Mihalic was smiling ear to ear, triumphantly pumping his fists in the air. He, along with over a dozen jubilant teammates, made sure to express their gratitude to the fans and the Indiana Crabb Band first and foremost.
There were hugs, high fives and endearing team dancing, but the celebration was far from extravagant. Despite defeating the University of Pittsburgh in the College Cup semifinal Friday night, Indiana men’s soccer acted like they’d been there before — probably because they have.
Next Monday night at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, North Carolina, the Hoosiers will appear in their 17th NCAA national championship. Despite a regular season that can best be summed up as inconsistent, Indiana has started to answer pressing questions at just the right time.
“We don’t ride on what other people would say, but I do feel there was certainly some doubting,” coach Todd Yeagley said after the match. “When you have a confident keeper, a team that believes in defending as a whole and some special players, that’s a nice formula. That formula wasn’t there in August and September, but it’s evolving.”
Now, four matches and 360 minutes into the NCAA Tournament, Yeagley’s squad has yet to concede a goal. Box defending, consistent communication and transitional play hindered the Hoosiers seemingly match after match, but the veteran backline has hit their stride from the outset of the postseason.
Behind the stout group of upperclassmen stands junior goalkeeper JT Harms. Harms struggled mightily at times, failing to take grasp of the starting role. From the Big Ten Tournament Championship and on, though, he has been a brick wall.
His confidence, as Yeagley noted, stands out. His penchant for acrobatic saves in big moments — and fearlessness in the air — gives his teammates energy and belief. In his first season as a Hoosier, he has quickly become a fan favorite. After the match, Harms reciprocated the love.
“The support we get at Indiana is second to none,” Harms said. “This result isn’t just for the 11 on the field; it’s for everyone involved in the program.”
After the Elite Eight win over University of North Carolina Greensboro, Harms said he had four All-Americans playing in front of him. He reiterated that Friday night, and it’s far from inconceivable.
In part due to various injuries, the backline was never truly in form until the back end of the regular season. But with the attackers now fully buying into defending, and the midfield duo of freshman Jack Wagoner and sophomore Patrick McDonald continuing to impress, Indiana has stifled some of the top attacking forces in the country.
As Yeagley mentioned, it wasn’t always this way. In fact, it was far from it. With a gauntlet of a regular season schedule, the Hoosiers endured some rocky lows. When putting together the schedule, he said he had to trust in the talent he had to grind through the tough times.
“You just take a leap of faith and put them out there and figure it out,” Yeagley said. “That’s the philosophy that we’ve always had in the program. My father said many years ago, ‘you need to find out where your team is at.’ Certainly, it helped us.”
The team’s chemistry is something that kept them going through those struggles. It was there throughout the early segments of the season, but it’s even more evident now. Mihalic, who scored the second goal Friday to ultimately put the match away, made six appearances with the Croatian U-17 National Team.
Early in the day before the semifinal match, Croatia advanced past Brazil in the FIFA World Cup. Mihalic was delighted to talk about both of his wins.
“I told coach, ‘I don’t know if this day could get better,’” Mihalic said. “We watched that game as a team this morning, so it was amazing.”
“There was a scream in the hotel that literally everyone heard,” Yeagley joked.
When you think of Indiana’s program, adversity is perhaps near the end of the list of words that come to mind. A dynasty in the sport, the Hoosiers’ level of greatness can overshadow the work that it takes to reach the pinnacle so often.
Commitment is crucial. Having a culture that players admire and aim to perpetuate is how good teams become great. Now, Indiana is on the cusp of its ninth star — and they have a chance to earn it with a team that some expected couldn’t.
“They’re 90 minutes away from forever leaving their mark,” Yeagley said.