On Oct. 24, 2021, coming off of three straight losses with its NCAA tournament hopes in the balance, Indiana women’s soccer faced a daunting challenge in the No. 18 ranked Purdue Boilermakers. But, after a disappointing 2-0 defeat in which the Hoosiers’ offensive woes and conference struggles came to a head, the 2021 season was all but over, and the NCAA tournament drought extended to eight years.
Despite a disappointing conclusion to the 2021 season, the team’s youth alone should warrant optimism for 2022. With five freshmen appearing in at least 16 matches and carving out significant roles, a 9-5-4 record — Indiana’s best since 2013 — was certainly an accomplishment for head coach Erwin van Bennekom in his third year at the helm.
Within the record, however, is a caveat. The Hoosiers went 3-4-3 in Big Ten matchups, and in vital matches against conference giants Rutgers, Penn State and Purdue which headlined a gauntlet of an October schedule, Indiana came up empty.
While the Hoosiers were hampered by their play in the attacking third, to say their backline was a strength would be an understatement: it was their identity. Indiana led the Big Ten by surrendering just .67 goals on a per-game basis. One of the prime reasons for this? Jamie Gerstenberg.
Freshman and German goalkeeper Jamie Gerstenberg earned the starting position after longtime stalwart Bethany Kopel missed her fifth-year senior season with an ACL injury, and she acclimated with ease.
Gerstenberg flashed brilliance from the moment she stepped onto the pitch for preseason matches. And, after setting the program’s single-season individual record in shutouts with nine, Gerstenberg earned her spot on the Big Ten All-Freshman team and cemented herself as the leader of the Hoosiers’ young core.
Anchoring the defense was then-sophomore fullback Anna Aehling, who also hails from Germany. Aehling started every game for the Hoosiers and continued her decorated collegiate career with a third-team All-Big Ten nod last fall.
Hanna Nemeth, a then-graduate student defender from Hungary, played and started in all 18 games last season, providing a steady dose of veteran leadership and a rock-solid presence on the backline. Her center-back partner, Poland native and senior Oliwia Wos tallied 15 starts on the year and displayed creativity when playing out from the back.
However, the Hoosiers’ defense will look drastically different this fall, and new reinforcements may need to come from unlikely spots.
It was no secret around the Big Ten that every matchup with the Hoosiers would be a bit of a slog. And while their defensive efforts were enough to keep them fighting in virtually every contest, finding the net at a meager 1.28 per game clip (last in the conference) wasn’t enough.
Youth and inexperience were driving factors of their lack of production in and around the opponent’s box. In fact, the team’s top four leaders in points consisted of three underclassmen and a transfer.
While the offensive production in a vacuum left much to be desired, the Hoosiers weren’t short of chances. Behind the versatile midfield trio of junior Avery Lockwood, who has since transferred to Xavier for her senior season, and then-freshmen Sydney Masur and Kelly Monaco, the team was able to post 13.4 shots per game with just under half of which being on target.
The number of quality looks put the Hoosiers at just about the conference average. but more conversion will certainly be expected from attack-minded transfers and underclassmen that were integrated last year. One of these transfers, then-sophomore forward Paige Webber, had a terrific freshman campaign at Michigan State that saw her finish second on the team in points and goals.
Webber’s points, shots and goals all regressed in 2021, albeit marginally, and the Hoosiers relied on more of an attack by committee as opposed to a true star, or duo, up top. Freshman Jordan Levy and sophomore Jen Blitchock tallied four goals a piece, which was promising, but given the bevy of attacking substitutions every game, steady production from the young group will be crucial to turning close losses into wins in 2022.
Perhaps an encouraging sign was the streakiness of the offensive play. The Hoosiers did not record a loss at home until late September of 2021 and thrashed multiple opponents on the way. Regardless of the lesser competition Indiana played early in the season, it was evident that the offense had potential to click and score in a hurry.
Though the peaks were impressive, the Hoosiers were undoubtedly marred by their aforementioned conference play in October. Concluding the season on a four-game scoreless streak against Maryland, Penn State, Rutgers and Purdue was not the fairy tale ending that the young team envisioned, and in part two, you will find out how coach van Bennekom plans to reignite the offense for 2022.
What to draw away from 2021
The roster of last fall was by no means a finished product. Van Bennekom fielded a young group that had little experience playing together, and aside from a cold offensive streak against legitimate national contenders, they flashed loads of potential.
In part two, read about everything you need to know for van Bennekom’s fourth season as the Hoosiers’ head coach, including roster shakeups, navigating a young team and more.