CARY, N.C. – Indiana players standing at midfield unlocked arms and began rushing toward the goal.
They were hoping to celebrate a national championship, but suddenly, after witnessing smoke rising behind the net, their cleats stuck to the grass in disbelief.
All-American forward Levonte Johnson’s penalty kick struck the crossbar, and barely tucked past the goal line. Syracuse converted the necessary penalty kick to remain alive in the national championship match Monday night. Shootout score: tied 6-6.
Following Indiana’s miss going first, Amferny Sinclair’s walk-off top-right-corner strike sent Syracuse penalty-takers standing at midfield into a frenzy. The heart of the Syracuse’s fan section chanting “Let’s Go Orange!” filled the venue.
Indiana players again, unlocked arms, but this time, collapsed to the ground.
The orange-font scoreboard at Sahlen’s Stadium in Cary, North Carolina, displayed: Syracuse 7, Indiana 6. No time remained. For the second time in three seasons, Indiana departed North Carolina falling to a first-ever victor in the national championship match (Marshall in 2020-21).
The arched NCAA trophy rested tauntingly nearby on the sideline scorer’s table.
“There’s not much you can really say or do right now for these guys,” Indiana head coach Todd Yeagley said post-match. “There’s a lot of emotion, a lot of tears on the field because there’s a lot invested. It was difficult because it was obviously very close.”
Syracuse players wearing championship hats and t-shirts mobbed one another while hoisting the trophy as fireworks sparkled behind them. Certain Indiana players watched motionlessly. Perhaps, not even by choice. Maouloune Goumballe, who missed the potential go-ahead penalty when the score was tied 6-6, stood inconsolable at midfield for at least 10 minutes.
“It’s such a tough… even when you win it you feel so much for the other team,” Yeagley said. “I’ve been on the other side of that. You feel for them because it’s unique to our sport the way it finishes.”
On the same date in 2004, when Yeagley served as an Indiana assistant coach, the Hoosiers won their seventh national championship — 3-2 in penalty kicks. On the 18th anniversary, Indiana landed on the opposite side of the result.
Before the shootout began, Indiana goalkeeper JT Harms and Syracuse keeper Russell Shealy bumped fists, wrapped their arm around each other, and strolled in sync toward the goal. Both had allowed two strikes to enter their net during regulation, and combined for nine saves amid the four-goal scoring spree.
“Penalties isn’t an ideal way to decide a game,” Harms said at the podium after the match, remnants of tears surrounding his eyelids. “Goalkeepers understand that this is your time to shine and it’s all respect out there. (Shealy) played a great game and he had kind words so it’s complimentary of each other. Kudos to them, they got the job done.”
If Harms made that final save, the shootout would have continued, and the Hoosiers could have added the ninth star to their crest, celebrating in front of the fireworks. But to begin with, the Hoosiers’ defensive blockade throughout the NCAA Tournament aided in their record 17th finals appearance.
Indiana didn’t concede through its first four tournament matches, totaling 360 minutes of clean-shot soccer. The Hoosiers are the first team since Maryland in 2018 to reach the championship match without conceding a goal, and the seventh team all time to share the accomplishment.
With Syracuse possessing its first pair of All-Americans since 1932 — two strikers Johnson and Nathan Opoku up top — it’s tricky to imagine even Indiana’s veteran backline shutting out the Orange to maintain that clean-sheet streak.
“I haven’t had the chance to look at the video, it seemed like we might have missed a one-two or some of our box defending wasn’t as good as it has been,” Yeagley said. “But we’ve defended great. We knew this night would be a tough night to get a shutout.”
And now, due to remaining eligibility, it’s certain that Indiana’s backline consisting of Nyk Sessock, Daniel Munie, Joey Maher and Brett Bebej won’t share the field next season. The same set of defenders that started the national championship two seasons ago, and lost.
An Indiana victory Monday would have marked the team’s first title in a decade, and a 40-year anniversary since the program’s first title in 1982. Additionally, the Hoosiers would have secured being the only team to win a championship in the last five decades.
Now, there’s still time in this decade for Yeagley and his team to carry out that accomplishment. But, on Sunday leading up to the match, Yeagley pointed out you may never know when the next College Cup will arrive.
“You just don’t know when the next one is coming,” Yeagley said Sunday. “I mean, we’ve been fortunate to get here a lot but you look at historical programs through every sport, it’s hard to be this consistent. That’s what is the most unique about our program.”
If any player is confident about Indiana’s return, it’s Harms, the junior transfer shot-stopper.
“I thought we deserved better today, especially the seniors, I thought they deserved everything,” Harms said. “I got my best friends on this team and they deserve better. It is what it is. We’ll bounce back. We’ll be back, no doubt about it. I’m just so grateful to be able to wear the badge, to be at Indiana, and to call these guys my teammates and my brothers.”