Todd Yeagley clutched sophomore defender Brett Bebej in his arms like a father would his child.
There was nothing to say, no wisdom to give, not a thing the IU men’s soccer coach could do. So Yeagley gently grabbed Bebej’s head, streams of tears melding with beads of sweat from 98 minutes of denying chance after chance, pulled him close to his chest, and whispered four simple words, ‘I’m so proud of you.’
The scene was captured live on ESPN2 for the entire country to see. It came mere moments after Marshall’s Jamil Roberts stuck the dagger into No. 3-seed Indiana’s quest for a ninth national title. Roberts’ golden goal in the 98th minute gave the Thundering Herd their first NCAA championship in program history, while the Hoosiers were left to cope and mourn with the 1-0 defeat.
It was so tantalizingly close.
The ninth star being added to Indiana’s crimson kits. The trophy ceremony obliging the Hoosiers to hoist their ninth national championship high above their heads. The roar of the Indiana faithful, including IU head football coach Tom Allen and IU head men’s basketball coach Mike Woodson, who made the trip to Cary, N.C., to root on the cream and crimson.
It was all supposed to be Indiana’s reality Monday night. Until it became fantasy.
This isn’t Yeagley’s first go-around with disappointment or heartbreak, though. In fact, he’ll be the first to tell you that some of the strongest IU teams he’s ever coached failed to complete the Quest For Nine.
“It’s hard to compare teams, I don’t like doing that,” Yeagley said after the College Cup finals. “…The ’17, ’18 teams were a special group, no doubt. A lot of talent in that group. I thought we were very dominant.
“This group had to do it a little different way, and had to do a little bit more defending than some of our teams in the past. But we always want to put ourselves in position to win games. The kids come here at IU to play in these games, to be in the championship match.”
In 2017, Indiana fell one goal short of the ninth star, losing to Stanford, 1-0, in double overtime in the College Cup finals. That Hoosiers team was arguably the most talented of any during Yeagley’s 12 seasons — Trey Muse, Grant Lillard, Trevor Swartz, Mason Toye, Justin Rennicks, Andrew Gutman, the list goes on and on. Yet they still couldn’t get past the final speed bump.
In 2018, the story was nearly the same, only the Hoosiers were sent home in the College Cup semifinals at the hands of Maryland. Despite having a MAC Hermann Trophy winner in Andrew Gutman, an All-American goalkeeper in Trey Muse, and a supporting cast littered with All-Big Ten selections, it still wasn’t enough.
If not those teams, then who?
Such is the conundrum that Yeagley and his coaching staff have been trying to solve since the Hoosiers last won a national championship in 2012. And they’ll have to wait at least one more season to crack the code.
But the pieces were all in place for the Hoosiers this season.
An elite goal-scorer and National Player of the Year candidate: Check, Victor Bezerra.
A premier goalkeeper to lead the backline: Check, Roman Celentano.
Experience and unflappable leadership: Check, Spencer Glass and A.J. Palazzolo (though Glass’ final season was cut short after suffering a broken leg at the end of the regular season).
Rock-steady secondary players who embraced their role: Check, Daniel Munie, Joe Schmidt, Brett Bebej, Herbert Endeley, Maouloune Goumballe, and others.
What more could Yeagley or the coaching staff have done?
Sometimes, the answer is simply… nothing. Sometimes, it just doesn’t matter what the cache of talent is or how much depth has been built. Sometimes, it seems, the fate of one’s own destiny is left up to nothing more than chance.
Sure, Indiana had several dangerous chances to score against Marshall and put the match away early. But it didn’t pan out that way. Perhaps it was fate. Or maybe it was the soccer gods showing no mercy to the College Cup long-timers and instead favoring the College Cup first-timers.
However you wish to chalk up Indiana’s shortcomings Monday night, don’t lose sight of this: IU has advanced to the College Cup in three of the last four seasons.
Any collegiate men’s soccer program would kill to be perennial Final Four mainstays like the Hoosiers. It’s the tradition that has been built in Bloomington, first starting with Jerry Yeagley in 1973 (and before in the club days) and trickling down to Todd nearly 50 years later.
Excellence is expected for a program that’s won eight national titles. Every season, the expectation is to vie for a spot in the College Cup. How many other programs or fanbases can realistically say this?
But with all the pomp and circumstance surrounding Indiana’s program, it’s also quite easy to forget the bigger picture.
That is, Yeagley has built this program to last, and he’s doing it in different ways than his counterparts.
Across the five matches the Hoosiers played throughout the NCAA Tournament, each opponent had a significant amount of international personnel on their rosters. Marshall’s roster consisted of 22 international players. Pittsburgh had 17 overseas players. Seton Hall’s pipeline added up to 19. Marquette, eight. St. Francis Brooklyn, 13.
Indiana had one international player this season, redshirt freshman midfielder Quinten Helmer by way of Amsterdam.
In an era where college soccer program’s are seemingly in an arm’s race to pluck as many international players and build as many overseas connections as possible, Indiana has stuck to its roots.
Longstanding pipelines in the St. Louis area, Chicagoland area, Indianapolis area and Columbus area have anchored the Hoosiers for decades, and the wins keep coming.
No matter how the landscape around Bloomington changes, Yeagley, assistant coaches Kevin Robson, Danny O’Rourke, Christian Lomeli, and Director of Operations Phalo Pietersen, understand what it takes to win.
Indiana won’t hang a national championship banner every season, but it is in contention for one every season. That, in itself, is a sign of a program that understands its identity and what it’s chasing after.
All season, the message Yeagley continued to echo was to “change the jersey.” The eight stars have been around long enough, he said, and it’s time to add a ninth.
That’s why, when most other teams would’ve been happy to simply advance to the College Cup finals, players like Bebej were left inconsolable.
Don’t lose sight of the bigger picture for the present moment. Yeagley sure isn’t.
“To be in our 21st College Cup, to do the things this program has done, although difficult in this moment, I told the guys that everyone is proud of them. When the time’s right and they’re able to reflect… they’ll be proud, though, in the years ahead.”