Nyk Sessock and Sam Sarver clutched separate IU-emblazoned flags high above their heads, their hands steadily swinging back and forth.
A quick glance at the opposite sideline and you might’ve thought a few rogue students, affectionately known as the ‘Hoosier Army’, hopped the boards to celebrate No. 1 Indiana’s 1-0 triumph over Butler.
A second, longer glance clearly makes out crimson silhouettes of the senior right back and freshman forward running back and forth along the boards, flags still hoisted high above their heads.
The occasion? Oh, just the first regular-season home game with fans at Bill Armstrong Stadium in nearly two years, with a win over an in-state rival to improve to 2-0 overall making it that much sweeter.
“This was different,” IU head coach Todd Yeagley said of the crowd. “As we fatigued in the second half, no doubt the crowd was a huge part in us getting through that phase that we were in a little bit of a funk. I just want to thank the fans, in particular the student’s were great.”
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The short-handed Hoosiers needed all the energy and momentum they could muster from the boisterous atmosphere as they clung to a 1-nil advantage for the final 61 minutes.
No star striker? No captain midfielder? No second-leading scorer from a season ago?
No problem — at least not for the newly-anointed top-ranked Indiana Hoosiers in front of their home crowd.
Though ominous, dark clouds loomed over Jerry Yeagley Field for much of the night, it didn’t deter the Hoosiers from shining bright. And neither did the absences of Victor Bezerra, Joe Schmidt and Ryan Wittenbrink due to injury.
In their place was an all-hands-on-deck approach, one that allowed Indiana to escape victorious thanks to sophomore defender Joey Maher’s first-career goal in the 29th minute.
“Joey just plays so much older,” IU head coach Todd Yeagley said. “We forget that Joey’s just a sophomore… He’s just mature.”
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Maher wasn’t the only underclassman who was tasked with elevating his play, though. It also came in the smattering form of true freshmen and sophomores galore.
“It’s the next man up mentality,” Maher said. “I thought it was Herb (Endeley), Maouloune (Goumballe), Tommy (Mihalic), Sarver, (Brett) Bebej sliding in the six, Lawson (Redmond), Lukas (Hummel), it’s all about the next guy up. And I thought they were all very locked in tonight.”
Without Mihalic’s fearlessness — he attempted a shot from about 25 yards out that clanked off the top crossbar — on the attack, IU would’ve generated five less shots. Without Redmond coming on midway through the second half, the Hoosiers likely don’t clear a lose ball that had Butler goal marked all over.
The list of other contributions goes on and on. And IU couldn’t afford anything less, with a fierce in-state rival in town who fired off clean shot after clean shot in the opening minutes of the match.
IU junior goalkeeper Roman Celentano let his actions do the talking, however, as he denied Butler chance after Butler chance before the Hoosiers backline finally settled in. Both of Celentano’s saves came in the opening five minutes, and it was all he needed to notch his first shutout of the season and 17th clean sheet of his career.
“We bent a few times, but yet our help defense was good, or we were able to get a body (in front of the ball), or Roman makes a save,” Yeagley said.
The defensive performance was also a vast improvement from what the backline showed when it allowed four goals against Louisville in IU’s final exhibition and last Friday when it conceded two more goals in the season-opener at Notre Dame.
The return of sixth-year captain and All-American left back Spencer Glass to the starting XI also paid major dividends. Whether it was his crisp set piece in the 29th minute that set up Maher’s eventual game-winner, or his leadership along the backline, Glass’s 81 minutes provided a calmness that seemingly manifested.
“It was a good performance,” Maher said of Indiana’s defense. “I thought the backline played very solid. Nyk, (Daniel) Munie, Spencer, kind of like that back five, I’m very fortunate to be playing next to those guys. Every day in training, games, they’re always ready.”
Though IU’s defense survived a late surge from Butler in the final moments, the “next man up mentality” also applied to the self-proclaimed Hoosier Army.
A brief, early rain shower be damned, Indiana’s fans largely stayed until the final whistle.
“It was incredible,” Maher said of the crowd. “That was my first regular season game with a home crowd. That was something else. I just can’t wait for more home games.”
The dark red chalk that formed a plume of dust above Yeagley Field following Maher’s goal said it all: Fans are back.
The flags that flew high above the heads of Sessock and Sarver when the game clock struck 90:00 signaled a statement: the ‘Hoosier Army’ isn’t a fanbase to reckon with.
And on a night when a palpable sense of normalcy made its long-awaited return to Armstrong Stadium, the Hoosiers executed what is expected of the top-ranked team in the nation: They finished.
“We’re going to learn a lot from this game,” Yeagley said. “We did get exposed in some things, and this is a game you need and you come out with a win and it’s exactly what you want.”