Ryan Wittenbrink couldn’t help but smile when he heard the news late Wednesday night.
“We’ve decided to credit Ryan with the goal tonight,” an IU spokesperson announced.
“Lets go!” Wittenbrink blurted out, a sense of euphoria overcoming his face. “That’s huge!”
For a player who ranked second on the Hoosiers last season in goals scored and points, the redshirt junior had largely struggled to replicate that same success this season. He entered Wednesday’s match against Evansville with just one goal to his name, which came against Division II Trine University a few weeks ago.
But this late in the season, it doesn’t matter how the goals come nor the circumstances surrounding them. All that matters is that they count, and Wittenbrink’s tally in the 72nd minute was the final dagger the Hoosiers needed to put away the Purple Aces, 2-0, in Bloomington.
“We feel great, we’re clicking on all cylinders,” Wittenbrink said.
For several minutes, though, even after the crowd at Bill Armstrong Stadium had cleared out, there was still no indication if Wittenbrink would be awarded his coveted second goal of the season. Not even the PA Announcer was sure how to call out the goal.
But make no mistake, Wittenbrink did everything in his power to create his own so-called luck.
The winning moment began with the Libertyville, Illinois, native making a run down the left flank and a lone Evansville defender in hot pursuit. Though Wittenbrink won the foot race to the ball, he paid the price by taking a hard tackle, falling to the ground and writhing in pain — embellished or not.
Yellow card against Evansville’s Francesco Brunetti.
The showmanship worked, and Wittenbrink popped right back up to his feet as if nothing happened. This was his free-kick and he knew exactly what he wanted to do with it. Within seconds the ball launched off his right foot like a cannon, weaved through the first wall of defense, deflected off an Evansville player’s head and snuck past goalkeeper Jacob Madden’s out-stretched arms.
Wittenbrink kept the celebration short and sweet: a simple fist pump as he turned toward Indiana’s bench.
After a goal like that, though, for one of IU’s most lethal weapons marred in a season-long slump, the celebration couldn’t have come in a more timely manner.
“Witt(enbrink) was a big piece of our attack last year,” Indiana head coach Yeagley said. “To bring him off the bench, we said you’re a starting level, but when the game kind of settles for a moment he’s at his best. And it’s just been working for us with him in that role.”
The latter can probably be said about most of Indiana’s pieces in the second half of the season. After stumbling to a 5-3-1 record to begin a campaign filled with high aspirations, the Hoosiers have seemingly found themselves in the last month, recording five-straight clean sheets and winning seven of their last eight matches.
One of IU’s major catalysts for its late resurgence has been a return to top form for reigning Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year Victor Bezerra. Since Oct. 1 — when IU lost 2-1 against Michigan — Bezerra has scored five goals, dished out three assists and tallied 13 points. And against Evansville, he struck again.
It came off a well-executed set piece in the 24th minute as the Hoosiers were awarded a free-kick from just outside Evansville’s 18-yard box. Senior midfielder Joe Schmidt and Bezerra both hovered over the dormant ball — a strategy they’ve employed a few times before to keep the opponent guessing — but everyone in Armstrong Stadium knew who was taking the shot.
As soon as the whistle blew, Schmidt simply tapped the ball backward to Bezerra who uncorked a shot to the left of the net and tucked it just inside the bottom post.
It was a goal that would’ve been the norm last season for the Hoosiers, but after struggling to finish set pieces with the same success rate, Bezerra’s finishing ability was a welcome sight for fans.
“Our set pieces are certainly a strength,” Wittenbrink said, “I think you’ve seen that last year and this year. It helps us, if we can’t get a goal in open play, we can get goals on set pieces, so it just makes us more dynamic.”
And set pieces won’t be the only aspect that will determine Indiana’s true ceiling this season. Defense will, too.
Only now, at least within the last three weeks, something has seemingly clicked for IU in all phases.
“We haven’t had some of those self-inflicted moments,” Yeagley said, “and I think that’s what was hard (earlier in the season). When you’re team hasn’t had that — this particular team and program — it kind of rattled them. They kind of weren’t understanding like ‘well, why is this happening? We’ve never had these moments.’
“You can look at the first three or four games and see those giveaways, either a poor clear, a lack of communication… things we really pride ourselves on. But we didn’t panic, and we said we really have to clean this stuff up.”
So far, the clean up is well underway, and it has been since the Hoosiers’ 2-1 loss against Rutgers on Sept. 17.
With just three games left in the regular season — two against Wisconsin and Maryland, and a final non-conference test in VCU — Indiana continues to inch closer to the team that went to the College Cup last season, rather than the team plagued by injuries, inconsistencies and uncharacteristic mistakes at the beginning of the season.
But even now, Yeagley will be the first to tell you that the real work is only beginning, and not until the Hoosiers are hoisting a fourth-straight Big Ten trophy over its head will he be satisfied.
“We still can grow,” Yeagley said. “…We’ve got a couple more guys that I feel are still growing and learning, whether it’s an experienced guy getting fully back healthy and sharp, or a freshman or sophomore getting to learn how to play with each other more.”