There are a variety of different ways to define success in sports. Wins and losses define any program, regardless of the sport or the level its being played. Winning championships and hoisting trophies is the easiest way to make a season successful, whether that be in the regular season or postseason. For some schools or teams, success is outperforming expectations.
Indiana men’s soccer runs on success. The motto surrounding the most successful college soccer program in the country is a “tradition of excellence.” Eight national titles rank second all-time, two behind Saint Louis University. Forty-eight NCAA Tournament appearances is also second by two to the Billikens. Thirty-four Big Ten regular-season and tournament titles, the most in the conference. In its 51st season of existence, Indiana has been to 22 College Cups, soccer’s equivalent of the Final Four.
The Hoosiers can make that 23 College Cups in 51 seasons this year after hearing their name called on Monday when the NCAA Tournament committee revealed Indiana in the bottom right quadrant of the bracket. Although the Hoosiers did not receive a national seed as they may have expected, their turnaround from the beginning of the season is remarkable.
A year ago, Indiana went all the way to the national championship game, narrowly losing to Syracuse in penalty kicks in what was considered a “down year.” Indiana started that year 3-2-2 and failed to win its first two conference matchups. Questions were asked if the Hoosiers would be able to make the NCAA Tournament.
Lo and behold, Indiana went on a run in October and November to the Big Ten championship game, ultimately falling short of a trophy but surprisingly snagged a national seed in the NCAA Tournament, the only Big Ten team to do so. While upsets in Indiana’s side of the bracket may have made its path easier to another deep run, Todd Yeagley’s men beat the teams in front of them and made it back to the game’s biggest stage in Cary, North Carolina.
Fast forward to 2023. Indiana lost four key players from that 2022 team, three of whom were taken in the MLS SuperDraft. While the Cream and Crimson felt they replaced that talent, the early going of the campaign suggested otherwise. The Hoosiers could not score for the life of them, starting this year 3-3-4 and 0-1-2 in conference play. In those 10 matches, the Hoosiers scored just seven goals, suggesting the loss of Ryan Wittenbrink was bigger than expected. For reference, Wittenbrink scored nearly 25% of Indiana’s goals last year in a breakout season.
Indiana’s RPI was nowhere near good enough to even be in the conversation for an NCAA Tournament bid at the beginning of October. While the women’s team was severely outperforming expectations out of nowhere, the men’s team was doing the opposite after starting the season as the No. 2 ranked team in the country and the school picked second in the Big Ten preseason poll.
But, Yeagley worked his magic again. Slight changes to the starting lineup were necessary, but more than enough to put the team back on track. As a result, the Hoosiers are now one of the hottest teams in the country, winning nine of their past 10 matches en route to securing the 12th Big Ten “double” in program history, the fourth one in six seasons.
With the complete turnaround, Indiana may have been disappointed to not see a seed next to its name, but just a month and a half ago everyone figured the Hoosiers would not be in the field of 48 teams, a situation that Maryland, the team that was picked to win the conference, finds itself in.
For most programs, a second-half resurgence like the one Indiana has made this season would make the season successful, regardless of what happens moving forward. But, with a program with the highest standard, success would be winning the third of three titles this year: the national championship. Although Indiana has played in the final game of the college soccer calendar in two of the past three seasons, the Hoosiers haven’t won it all since 2012. The 11-year drought is the longest in program history.
While seasons with high win totals may be defined as the most successful and stand out the most (hello 1975-76 basketball Hoosiers), seasons like this one may be even more impressive because of the hole the team dug itself and the strides that needed to be made to turn it around.
Indiana’s quest for the ninth star which would complete the “treble” begins Thursday when the Hoosiers host Atlantic Sun champs Lipscomb at Bill Armstrong Stadium. Kick-off is slated for 6 p.m.