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'He doesn’t look like a freshman, that’s for sure': The seamless integration of Jack Maher for Indiana men's soccer

The shoes Jack Maher has had to fill as just a freshman are as important as they are immense.

Before this season, Grant Lillard held down one of the two the starting center back spots in the backline. Lillard was a major contributor and was a big part in IU’s success during his time in Bloomington. But Lillard has since departed to MLS and the Chicago Fire. Therefore, his spot needed a replacement.

There were a few names that were in contention for Lillard’s center back position coming into 2018. Yet, it was one player that stood out above the rest. It was Caseyville, Illinois’ Jack Maher.

His integration into the starting XI has been seamless. Maher has been a welcome addition for IU coach Todd Yeagley and has started all 14 matches as a freshman.

“He doesn’t look like a freshman, that’s for sure,” Yeagley said after IU’s opening weekend of games at Wake Forest and North Carolina. “Very mature, he’s heady, he’s not intimidated, he’s been in big games, he likes that atmosphere and he didn’t get rattled one bit. He looked like a junior to me.”

Maher comes in as a freshman with a unique amount of experience already under his belt. Being from St. Louis, he came up in the Saint Louis FC academy and had the opportunity to play with the first team in USL action. He also has played with the United States Youth National teams at various tournaments.

The 6-3 freshman has brought that experience and more with him to Bloomington. Yeagley has had a lot of praise for his freshman center back. It’s one of the most difficult positions to fill, but Maher has come in and hasn’t skipped a beat.

“The coaching staff and the rest of my teammates have made it an easy transition,” Maher said. “They understand how it is as freshman playing. Really fortunate to have the people around me to really get the job done and we’ve been pretty good so far. A few slip ups, but we’re heading in the right direction.”

IU plays a possession-based style of soccer where they like to play the ball out of the back and control the match. Because of that, having a center back that is able to do play to those tactics is vital. Yeagley has praised Maher for succeeding at both of those aspects.

But something that Maher has had to work on has been the change in physicality from the high school/academy level into the college game. That part of the game isn’t lost on Maher as something to improve on.

“Biggest thing is, not much of a surprise, but the physicality,” Maher said. “That’s the main focus that I’m trying to work on and something that I know by the end of the season with the support staff that I have, we’ll be better at.”

Yeagley said playing smarter with his size is also important moving forward. A lot of what will help Maher take the next step physically will come with time. Both in terms of game experience and in growing and getting stronger.

“As the year has gone on, I think he’s dealt with the physical play a little bit better,” Yeagley said. “Most importantly I think he’s getting the nuances of the level change and that’s decisions on the ball, decisions in box defending, a lot of things. Small things, but in the physical piece, he’s made the biggest strides.”

There has been no shortage of challenges for Maher in his first season. His first two matches came against two of the best teams in country in Wake Forest and North Carolina. Yet, the freshman has kept a level head and has been a steady presence on the pitch all year long.

Moving forward, it is more uncharted territory for Maher. But he says because of the teammates he has around him, his confidence has been able to grow as the season has gone along.

“It’s really easy to have that confidence when you’re playing with arguably, in my opinion, the best goalkeeper, best left back, best center back, best six in the country. We work really good together and moving forward it’s something that they’ve instilled confidence in me,” Maher said. “It’s something that moving forward, something that I can take and apply to my game wherever I go.”

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