Nate Ward was a highly touted high school and youth player who excelled with the Riverhounds Development Academy and at Greensburg Central Catholic.
With numerous offers from NCAA Division I schools, Ward chose to play for one of college soccer’s blue bloods, Indiana University, where making the College Cup has become a rite of tradition, making 21 appearances since the program was founded in 1973.
The Hoosiers reached their first College Cup in their fourth season as a varsity program in 1976, which means in the 45 years since they’ve averaged an appearance almost every other year.
This year’s appearance marks their third in the last four seasons.
“None (of the other programs) measure up to the history and experience that comes with IU,” Ward told Pittsburgh Tribune-Review after making his commitment.
“They have the most NCAA championships, the most college cup appearances, the most NCAA tournament victories… and more. Coach (Todd) Yeagley and his father, (former Indiana head coach) Jerry Yeagley, form one of the most humble and successful coaching staffs in college soccer.”
Pitt’s program has actually been around a lot longer, going back to the 1950’s, but this will be their first-ever appearance in the College Cup.
Now, after beating Monmouth, Central Florida and Washington, Pitt will have to face a program which has been there and done that.
In fact, Jay Vidovich, who has turned around Pitt’s program in six years, played one season with the 1978 nationally-ranked Indiana Hoosiers and three seasons with Ohio Wesleyan, where he served as captain for the 1982 NCAA semi-finalists.
Through the years, Vidovich remained connected to the Indiana program.
“I was Jerry Yeagley’s East Coast experiment,” said Vidovich, who was born in Detroit but played his high school soccer in Connecticut.
“He became the Midwest dominator there. I was fortunate to go in at a tremendous time. I think my recruiting class was the one that got him his first star, but I didn’t make it that far. I wasn’t good enough for the program. But coach Yeagley is a master and a maestro and everything else and he still makes me feel like family to this day.”
When Vidovich took over at Pitt and once he started to turn the program in an upward direction, one of the programs which he looked to schedule in non-conference play was Indiana.
At the start of the 2019 season, Pitt ventured west to open its season with a pair of tough games to start the season, facing the Hoosiers in a match that went to overtime. That was one of those moments when Pitt’s program showed they could hang with the blue bloods.
Vidovich has already acknowledged that in terms of looking at Friday’s match-up, this season’s edition of the Pitt team is much different.
Pitt took a 2-0 lead into halftime, but fell to the Hoosiers 3-2 in overtime.
“That was a whole different team on our side, and that was a whole different team on their side. I’m not sure if (playing Indiana is) redemption. It’s more of excitement to play them. We’ve had the chance to play them several times and it’s always a tremendous match.”
By contrast, in his meet up with the media on Tuesday, Yeagley liked that he had some familiarity with Pitt from that fairly recent match-up and has a sense of what to expect on Friday night.
Still, that match was significant for Pitt as it was another step on the ladder in its ascension as a program. They turned the page to become more competitive in the ACC by 2018, but had not yet reached the point where they had any success against top-10 or top-5 caliber programs.
After the loss to Indiana, Pitt’s impressive progression as a program proliferated that season, as they knocked off a few of the ACC top ranked teams and they would go on to reach new heights in winning both ACC and NCAA tournament games.
Most soccer fans would only hope that we could have another overtime thriller between the two schools, and this time, with a lot more at stake.
A Closer Look at the Hooisers
Indiana Hoosiers (11-1-2)
College Cup appearances: 21
Eight-time National Champions (last won in 2012)
Head Coach: Todd Yeagley
The Indiana Hoosiers haven’t exactly dominated their way to this year’s College Cup, but with a program that has a pedigree that it has, they’ve continued to do what they’ve done best during the past 40-plus years.
They find ways to win.
After escaping early tournament matches by the skin of their teeth, the Hoosiers were facing relentless pressure against the Big East Champions, Seton Hall heading into the late moments of the first half of their quarterfinal round match on Monday.
Despite being on their heels for long stretches, the Hoosiers scored just before halftime, added a second-half goal, then held on against relentless pressure that would have broken a lesser team.
Playing on a rain-soaked field and a 40-minute weather delay couldn’t stop Indiana. Neither could a talented Seton Hall squad that had the advantage in shots (14-3), shots on goal (6-3) and corner kicks (5-1).
How did they persevere?
“To get to a College Cup is hard to do,” Yeagley says. “The number — the 21st — is pretty incredible.
“This one is theirs. I told them, you are leaving your mark, but the ultimate one is still ahead. We’re happy to be in this position. We’re enjoying it. We celebrated. At the same time, the crown jewel is still out there. It’s just a lot closer.”
They also have done it without their leading assist man during the past few years and a preseason MAC Hermann Trophy candidate, redshirt senior Spencer Glass, who sustained a broken leg injury against Michigan. With the team on the sidelines, Glass has been subjected to a role as player-coach and inspiration to his teammates.
In addition to battling through each game, the Hoosiers have one common thread.
They don’t concede goals all that much.
The Hoosiers have not surrendered more than one goal in any match this season and have only allowed five goals in 14 matches.
Boy this should be a great match.
A dynamic attack against an impenetrable defense.
On the surface, this is a National Semifinal that pits the most resilient and best defensive team against the best scoring team in men’s college soccer this season.
Pitt has outscored its opponents by 13-1 margin through the first three games in the NCAA tournament.
One dynamic IU player who the Panthers will have to account for is sophomore Victor Berzerra, who comes into the match as the Hoosiers’ leading scorer with 12 goals, though he’s been held without a shot in the last two matches against Marquette and Seton Hall, he will draw defenders and create for his teammates as evidenced by his big assist in the Marquette win.
Ask Maryland’s coach, Sasho Cirovski, about Berzerra, who picked his team apart with two goals in the Big 10 tournament.
“He’s [Bezerra] got a really good feel for the game and he’s got a great shot, but he can also beat you off the dribble, he’s a guy that can create his own chances, but he can also get on the other chances, and he’s a set piece specialist,” Cirovski said of Bezerra.
“He’s kind of a complete striker.”
Yeaghley’s squads tend be heavy on talented and tough American players from around the Midwest (majority of players from roster are relatively ‘home-grown’ from Indiana, Illinois, Ohio and Minnesota but they have a few internationals and players from other states too).
The Hoosiers are highly organized, play with a possession-oriented approach, as this year’s group in particular have been patient and will often wear down its opponents by dominating possession, bring added pressure in opportune moments and defend well as a group.
While Pitt’s previous opponent, Washington, were also tough to break down in the final third, the Huskies tried to do more to generate chances by creating havoc in and around the box.
Indiana can beat its opponents in a variety of ways. They have the ability to break teams down in the final third and have dangerous players on the wings who can create chances. As we’ve seen in the NCAA tournament, they’ve also been able to absorb pressure, and counter effectively.
In addition to Bezerra, they have other attacking options that came through in the quarterfinal.
Coming off the bench, forward Ryan Wittenbrink delivered a timely goal, on the only shot IU managed in the first half of that match.
Here’s a couple looks at a pretty impressive, well-slotted shot.
— Indiana Men's Soccer (@IndianaMSOC) May 10, 2021
Final 4 bound!! 👀🚨 pic.twitter.com/ShpfmxAHac
— Ryan Wittenbrink (@ryanwitt23) May 11, 2021
On the second goal, Maouloune Goumballe had the ability to chase down and get to the end line to deliver a short, cut-back cross that found its way to the goal box, setting up Thomas Warr.
— Indiana Men's Soccer (@IndianaMSOC) May 10, 2021
The holding midfield and central defending combination of A.J. Palazzolo and Joe Schmidt were effective in slowing down and limiting Seton Hall’s chances, will provide a good test for Pitt’s attacking group.
Indiana’s goalkeeper Roman Celentano has been solid under pressure this season and especially in tournament games as he’s posted nine shutouts this season while allowing just five goals. It was against Seton Hall when he made a season-high six saves. It was in the second round when Celentano came up huge, with three saves in the penalty kick shootout against St. Francis (NY).
In addition, the Hoosiers boast two Pittsburgh connections. First, Nate Ward has already made an impact in his freshman year, after an impressive youth and high school career with Beadling SC and at Greensburg Central Catholic. The forward/winger has been getting minutes most every game off the bench as a key addition to the Hoosiers’ deep rotation (usually they’ll go with anywhere from five to seven subs per game). Ward has scored one goal and an assists in 13 appearances this season.
The other player Pitt soccer followers are familiar with is Nyk Sessock, who was a part of the Pitt program for a couple of years, as he appeared in 37 matches with 32 starts in two seasons but since transferred to IU. Sessock has been one of the reliable stalwarts on the Hoosier back line, starting all 11 matches he’s played. If anyone knows the intricacies and tendencies of what Pitt likes to do in its attack, it’s Sessock, who spent plenty of time defending and playing along side the likes of Valentin Noel, Alexander Dexter and Veljko Petkovic in training for much of 2018 and 2019.
Pitt will no doubt be tested, and will have to figure out what many teams haven’t done thus far this year, break down a well-organized and disciplined Hoosiers side.
Playing in the rigors of the ACC and then being tested against the likes of Washington on Monday should help Pitt in contending with another difficult opponent.
Indiana may not have the flash and sizzle that some teams have, but they do know how to win.
“This team has not been a team that has overwhelmed our opponents,” Yeagley said. “We don’t kid ourselves and feel that’s the way we’re going to go out there. We can play really good soccer and certainly this team is very capable, but it’s built very well at the center of the field. We have guys who can change the game on the wings. We have an outstanding goal keeper, a strong spine, and a goal scorer. Those ingredients have proven very important to us in many of our title runs. … There’s a great grit about this group that has developed over the course of a season.”
Has Indiana lived too dangerously over the course of the tournament, and can finally be the team that take them down?
In a match pitting the top two remaining seeds, it should be a good one.
Anticipated Pitt Starting Lineup