Some how, some way, the third-seeded Hoosiers keep slugging out wins in the NCAA Tournament, and it has landed them in the College Cup for the 21st time in program history.
Now, only two more wins stand between Indiana and the coveted ninth national title.
We have a lot to talk about this week, so let’s get started with this loaded edition of The Q49 Journal.
Taking stock of Indiana’s College Cup run
Indiana has yet to play a flawless, complete match throughout the NCAA Tournament. But on the road to the College Cup, perfection isn’t always necessary. Resiliency is, though.
In all three of the Hoosiers’ NCAA Tournament wins, without resiliency and tough-minded attitudes, we’re likely not sitting here today talking about a potential ninth star.
In the second round against St. Francis Brooklyn, IU head coach Todd Yeagley said it was one of the most difficult play styles the team has faced all season. The Terriers’ pressure was relentless all game, especially forwards El Mahdi Youssoufi (who scored the second-half equalizer) and Nicolas Molina. Had it not been for Roman Celentano’s late-game heroics in net, there’s a decent chance Indiana is back in Bloomington looking ahead to next season.
Luckily, Celentano showed why he might be the best goalkeeper in nation, swatting away three shots in penalty kicks and denying several more in regulation and overtime.
I’d also be remiss to not acknowledge IU’s two-week layoff prior to the St. Francis Brooklyn match. There was certainly a bit of rust that needed to be knocked off for those in crimson jerseys, where as the Terriers played three days earlier in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament and had a bit more pep in their step, it seemed.
Nevertheless, the Hoosiers found a way to squeak past the Terriers in penalty kicks, despite being without starting defender Joey Maher (1-game suspension due to a red card). Talk about a massive sigh of relief for IU fans.
Then came a dangerous third-round matchup against an experienced and dangerous Marquette team. The Hoosiers looked much better to start this match than they did in the second round, fortunately, and rode out two second-half goals from Maouloune Goumballe and Herbert Endeley to mount the come-from-behind-win.
The no-call on A.J. Palazzolo which led to a Marquette goal in the first half had IU fans irate, but to the referee’s credit, his head was looking in the complete opposite direction. Tough situation for both IU and the referee to be in, but the Hoosiers managed to rally at halftime and fend off the Golden Eagles until the final buzzer.
And then came the Elite Eight matchup against No. 6-seeded Seton Hall, where Mother Nature decided to unleash a monsoon on Cary, North Carolina. (Disclaimer: I was also watching the broadcast from home, and the camera work was a mess due to the rain. God bless Dean Linke for his professionalism on commentary; one of the best in the business.)
Both sides endured a 40-plus-minute weather delay with 3:16 left in the first half, and at that point it felt like whoever could score first would likely win the game. Lo and behold, Indiana was able to brave the buckets of rain being dumped on the field to strike less than two minutes after play resumed.
Ryan Wittenbrink’s tally just before halftime was one of the most technical goals from an Indiana player all season, which also brought his season goals total to five.
If and when Victor Bezerra foregoes his remaining college eligbility after this season, Wittenbrink is at the top of the shortlist to lead IU in goals next season. He just always seems to be in the right place at the right time, and it’s going to be imperative that him, Endeley, Goumballe and Thomas Warr continue to step up in order to take the load off Bezerra’s shoulders in the College Cup. (But I digress.)
All in all, the Hoosiers have yet to display their top form in any match throughout the NCAA Tournament.. But again, perfection is not what matters; resiliency is.
Now let’s take a look at Pittsburgh…
What to expect with No. 2-seed Pittsburgh
It’s as if this match was destined to take place from the very beginning. The storylines simply write themselves, and there are several notable ones.
No. 1: IU starting right back Nyk Sessock’s first trip to the College Cup will pit (pun intedned) him against the team he transferred from last offseason.
A native of Philadelphia, Sessock spent his first two seasons with the Panthers, appearing in 37 matches with 32 starts while tallying two assists and one goal.
Following his sophomore season, Sessock entered the transfer portal and by Spring 2020, he signed on the dotted line for the Hoosiers. On his way to Bloomington, he brought a grittiness and selflessness that’s allowed him to be successful from day one.
So, how does Sessock feel about his playing career coming full circle and playing his former team Friday?
“We haven’t really talked about it much,” Yeagley said. “…Any time you have a player that’s on a different team or transferred in, I think for us, with Nyk, it’s just enjoy where you are now. And obviously he’ll have some insight on some of their players, which of course we’ll talk to him about,”
While the inside intel might be helpful, Sessock’s real value will come in just being himself Friday and not getting caught up in all the pomp and circumstance.
“Nyk has a lot of friends on Pitt and he’s obviously well-loved on our team,” Yeagley said. “He’s just a great young man, and we just want him to go out and enjoy it and obviously not overthink the opponent. I think he’ll do great.
“Once the whistle blows, it’s go time. It’s just another team that he’s playing against.”
No. 2: Pittsburgh head coach Jay Vidovich has deep-rooted ties with the IU program.
So deep, in fact, that Vidovich once donned the cream and crimson IU jersey for a full season in 1978 under legendary head coach Jerry Yeagley. His stint at Indiana would only last one season, though, before transferring to Ohio Wesleyan to finish his playing career.
“I have a lot of respect for Jay Vidovich,” Todd Yeagley said. “As some of you may not know, he was at IU for a short time as a player, so he’s got some IU love somewhere in there. He’s got a lot of respect for our program and my father, in particular.
“He always asks how he’s (Jerry) doing, and we really appreciate that.”
Now decades removed from his freshman season at IU, Vidovich has blossomed into one of college soccer’s great coaching minds.
From 1994-2014, he singlehandedly turned Wake Forest into the premier program it is today, guiding the Demon Deacons to its first and only national title in 2007. He also earned five ACC Coach of the Year selections and and two NSCAA Coach of the Year nods.
Now in his fifth season at Pittsburgh, Vidovich has again completely turned a program around, including the Panthers’ first ever College Cup this season.
No. 3: One of the nation’s premier goal-scoring teams vs. One of the nation’s premier defending teams.
Pittsburgh’s scoring pace this season is unprecedented. The Panthers lead the nation in goals scored with 51 in 19 games. The next closest team, High Point, tallied 38 goals across 14 games this season.
On the flipside, Indiana’s defense has conceded next to nothing in terms of goals all season. Goalkeeper Roman Celentano’s .909 save percentage leads the nation, while his eight shutouts are tied for third-most in the country. As a unit, the Hoosiers rank second nationally in goals against average (.344) and third in goal differential (+25).
Moral of the story: The two sides couldn’t be more different from each other in terms of strategy, philosophy and personnel.
However, it’s not as if IU and Pitt are unfamiliar with one another. The two teams met as recently as 2019 in Adidas/IU Credit Union Classic hosted in Bloomington. The Hoosiers came out on top, 3-2, in double overtime.
Could the recent familiarity work in IU’s advantage?
“It does help,” Yeagley said. “We definitely know the style of play that they like to play. We play against a few teams (in the Big Ten) that play a similar style.
“I thought Michigan this year has a close resemblance to what we’ll face on Friday with their movement and some of their interchanges.”
It’s the all-out aggressiveness that Yeagley is referring to with the Panthers. For the sake of giving up some goals defensively (22 allowed this season), Pittsburgh is relentless in pushing the ball up field and making runs whenever possible.
MAC Hermann Trophy Finalist and ACC Offensive Player of the Year, Valentin Noel, is the lynchpin that holds Pittsburgh’s attack together. The sophomore midfielder has tallied 14 goals and two assists this season while logging 21 shots on goal.
Noel doesn’t do it alone, though. ACC Freshman of the Year Bertin Jacquesson (4 goals, 7 assists) and ACC Defender of the Year Jasper Loeffelsend (9 assists) are key cogs in the Panthers’ attack-heavy style.
Defensively, goalkeeper Nico Campuzano, an ACC All-First Team selection, and defender Arturo Ordonez anchor a formidable backline that’s always hunting for dispossessions.
Will the “Godfather” make the trip to Cary?
Here was Todd Yeagley’s full answer when asked if his dad, Jerry, would be in attendance at the College Cup:
“I’m not sure about my father yet. He likes to watch (IU games) in his comfort area a lot, so I’m not sure if he’ll make it. I’m talking about it with him.
And my family, they told me to get to the College Cup and they’ll come over (to Cary). So talk about some pressure, I guess, to get to there.
There’s a lot going on. Usually you get to the College Cup and you’re there for three days, hopefully, but this one, to commit to a long time in Carolina was tough on our administration, our families.”
In-depth on my recent Yeagley family feature story
As many of you may have already read, last Friday I published a story here on The Hoosier Network titled, A dynasty of destiny: Inside college soccer’s greatest family.
The feedback I’ve received thus far has been overwhelming, and I want to start by saying THANK YOU for reading that special piece and for all the kind words. Initially, I wasn’t sure how the story would be received since the Yeagley family is so sacred among the Hoosier community, but I’m glad it resonated with the readers.
The process of writing this 3,000-word story was very meticulous and took four months to write, edit, and re-write. First, I want to acknowledge Zak Keefer (Indianapolis Colts beat writer, The Athletic), Alex McCarthy (IU alum and HN editor), and Jeff Rabjohns (Senior writer, Peegs.com) for all the time they spent editing the story and guiding me.
Of course, I’m also very grateful for the time I got to spend chatting with Jerry, Todd and Ben. I wasn’t sure if it would even be possible to coordinate interviews with all three, but they were incredibly gracious with their time and I cannot thank them enough.
Anyways… before I ever put pen to paper — or I guess fingers to keyboard — my mind was flooding with different ways to write this story. I knew I wanted to do something on the Yeagley family, but I wasn’t quite sure what.
However, I also went into the reporting process knowing I didn’t want the story to simply be a rehashing of the IU men’s soccer program or an oral history of the Yeagley’s — that’s already been done several times over, like the “Worth the Wait” documentary, which I highly recommend you watch on Big Ten Network if you haven’t already.
So, instead of framing the story around a linear timeline of the program, I decided to dive deep into the Yeagley family’s psyche. What makes them tick? We don’t hear from Jerry much nowadays, what’s he up to? How about the third generation of Yeagley’s, what are their thoughts on upholding the family legacy?
These are all questions I had, and it soon became the inspiration behind the story.
As you’ll learn from reading the story (or at least I hope you learn), there’s a lot that goes on behind-the-scenes with the Yeagley’s. Winning at the rate that Jerry and Todd have is nothing short of unprecedented. In fact, it probably flies way under-the-radar in the college sports’ world than it should.
But it’s not always sunshine and daisies when it comes to running a powerhouse program, and I did my best to capture at least some of that.
Ultimately, my goal was to give IU fans and readers another angle in which to understand college soccer’s winningest family, while still emphasizing their immense accomplishments. I hope you all enjoyed.