Nov. 28, 2009

NCAA.com Men's Soccer Blog | Interactive Bracket

By Kevin Scheitrum
NCAA.com


If you’re looking for a pivot point, the Penn State game’s not a bad place to start.

Cut to a spot just shy of 39 minutes into the match in Bloomington, Ind. on Nov. 6, with No. 25 Penn State ahead, 1-0, and host Indiana 50 minutes away from missing the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1986.

To that point, Indiana had, by its usual standards, floundered. Sure, it had played one of the toughest schedules in American collegiate soccer: 12 of the Hoosiers’ 18 opponents ended up making the NCAA Tournament. But, the problem was, the Hoosiers – the owners of seven national titles and an NCAA-record 17 College Cup appearances – hadn’t won a whole lot. And now, down by a goal to a Penn State team that had proven itself one of the most dangerous teams in the nation, Indiana sat at 8-8-1 in its final regular season game.

A win would, by virtue of the Hoosiers’ RPI, most likely earn them an at-large bid into the Tournament. A loss would, by virtue of a sub-.500 record, prolong an already vicious Bloomington winter.

But then came a game-tying goal from Lee Hagerdorn at 38:59 – just the third goal scored by the Hoosiers in the first half on the year. Then, 40 seconds into the second half, Daniel Kelly scored to put Indiana ahead. Over the next 45 minutes, the Hoosiers hung on, grinding their way into Tournament contention.

“I can’t deny it – that was a good feeling,” said Indiana coach Mike Freitag. “At least we could be considered for the Tournament. Everyone started saying ‘you’re in the Tournament.’ But I’m from in the Show-Me State. I’m from Missouri. And then when I saw us on the board, I felt good. I said, ‘we’re ready to go.’”

Indiana’s lost just once in four games since the comeback against PSU, with the two most recent wins coming in the NCAA Tournament and setting up a third-round match at North Carolina on Sunday (2 p.m. ET).

“Everybody started to believe,” said sophomore forward Will Bruin. “We were down before that, and then we all came together. There were moments when people weren’t playing for each other. Then they started playing for the Indiana on the jersey.”

“It’s a team where it took a while to come together,” Freitag said. “My staff has done a great job. We’ve put in a lot of work. It took a lot of sleepless nights – especially when you’re not wining and everything starts going bad, and everybody starts questioning everything, everybody starts pointing fingers.”

The notion of the Second Season carries a great deal of weight in sports, especially ones reaching the level of parity that’s prevailing in D-I Men’s Soccer now. The teams that excelled during the regular season, the theory says, have only the benefit of a better seeding come Tourney time: the equivalent of a vaguely smoother road. What matters above all in the Tournament is the manner in which a team closes its season – and no team in the country caught fire at a better time than did Indiana.

“I’m very proud of them,” Freitag said. “A lot of teams would have been buried. A lot of teams, you lose a game, and people would have pointed more fingers and gone down the tubes. This team continued to believe in themselves. … We know we have quality players; it’s just a team that too longer to get together. And now we know we can compete with anybody.”

Up to that Penn State game, Indiana had lost four of five. At no point in the season had it won more than three games in a row, with that lone three-game win streak in late September offset by a three-game losing streak in October that saw the Hoosiers go scoreless for 345:14.

They were cleaned out by UCSB, 3-0, in front of a live national audience on Oct. 2. Then, after a loss to Butler and that three-game win streak that brought so much optimism, losses to Michigan State, Louisville and Northwestern followed – with the loss to Louisville coming by a 4-0 margin.

“It was definitely frustrating,” Bruin said. “We had some rough games we kind of gave away that we shouldn’t have, that we should’ve won. We had to keep our heads up – that was tough.”

“Eveyrone’s was just trying to figure out what was wrong,” said sophomore defender Tommy Meyer. “And we finally figured it all out and came together as a team – but I still couldn’t tell you what it was [that they figured out].”

What changed the team, it turns out, is a lack of change.

All year long, Freitag juggled the lineup. He knew he had talented players. After all, this was Indiana. But he – and they – just couldn’t strike the right combination.

Then that scoreless drought hit, and suddenly, the Hoosiers’ record started teetering at or just above .500. So, more or less because he didn’t have any other choice, Freitag stuck with an 11-man lineup for a few games, letting them work their way into a rhythm instead of trying to instruct a beat himself.

“Maybe I wasn’t patient enough, with our schedule,” Freitag said. “We had to find a winning combination, so finally after we tried so many with them, we said ‘we’re sticking with this one.’”

Through two NCAA Tournament rounds, the Hoosiers haven’t allowed a goal. Blanking Louisville – the same Cardinal team that rocked Indiana, 4-0, on Oct. 21 – by a 2-0 mark in the first round, then taking down No. 12 seed Butler, 1-0, Indiana’s looking like so many Indiana teams before it: poised, dangerous, seasoned.

And that’s exactly how Freitag saw his team when he first put together that gauntlet of a schedule – despite how it may have looked mid-season.

“It would have been easier if the schedule weren’t so dang hard,” Freitag. “But now we know what good teams are, at the same time as some times are finding out what the good teams are all about.”