When it comes to success in NCAA Men’s Soccer tournament, Jay Vidovich and Todd Yeagley are right at the top of the list of elite men’s college soccer coaches.
Once again, both men will lead their respective programs into the College Cup, as the University of Pittsburgh and Indiana University will meet on Friday evening with a berth in the National Championship on the line.
The two programs faced each other 18 months ago, at the conclusion of the 2020-21 season when COVID-19 restrictions forced the NCAA to hold the entire tournament in Cary, as Indiana walked away with a close, resilient 1-0 win.
For the Hoosiers, it’s the 22nd time in the 50-year history of its soccer program that they’ve advanced to the College Cup. This will be Yeagley’s fifth trip to the NCAA Men’s College Cup since 2012 when the Hoosiers won their last national championship – no NCAA Division-I men’s soccer head coach has been to more College Cups in that span.
Vidovich, in his seventh season at Pitt, propelled the program from the bottom of the ACC to one of the best teams in the country, with four straight NCAA Tournament appearances, three Elite Eight Appearances and now two College Cups. Vidovich oversaw the men’s soccer program at Wake Forest for 21 seasons (1994-2014), building the Demon Deacons into a national power and winning the 2007 NCAA championship. This will be Vidovich’s sixth college cup, as he reached four at Wake Forest, and now with Pitt, two appearances in the past three seasons.
During the 2022 season, both programs hit some bumps in the road, and were not clear favorites when this year’s Tournament brackets were released in mid-November. Neither hid from competition, each playing rigorous schedules this season, yet by their lofty standards, Pitt and Indiana underachieved by losing three games, and with the new NCAA Soccer rules outlawing regular season overtime periods, combined for 11 draws.
Even after putting early ACC and Big 10 tournament lossess behind them, both coaches have their teams playing well, and most importantly, doing what they need to do to survive and advance in the NCAA tournament.
For the Hoosiers, it’s no surprise under Yeagley, that they’re doing it by being stingy, not allowing a goal in its last three matches, 270 minutes.
“They look to me like a very similar Indiana team,” Vidovich said in a meet-up with the media on Monday.
“They can win big games. They can find ways to get goals one way or another.”
That match-up two years ago saw Pitt get on the front foot for much of the match, creating numerous chances throughout the first half and into the early stages of the second half. But the Hoosiers hung around, and in latter stages of the second half, they flipped the script. with Herbert Endeley seizing the moment late in the match to deliver the game-winning strike to give the Hoosiers the 1-0 win.
Much like Vidovich, Yeagley has created a culture where they expect to be in this position, even when things aren’t going so well.
Both programs made it to the Elite Eight last season, but with high expectations in the Fall 2021 NCAA Tournament, came up short with bitter losses. For Pitt, it was another team from Indiana who eliminated them, as Notre Dame knocked off the Panthers in a penalty kick shootout, while Indiana fell to eventual National Runner-Up Washington.
Senior Hoosier Ryan Wittenbrink was on the IU squad that lost in the national championship game two seasons ago, Wittenbrink was asked by the Indy Star in October, what he had seen out of this team to give belief they could make a deep run in the postseason.
“We have a lot of those guys that were in that (national championship appearance) run,” Wittenbrink said.
“And obviously a lot of talented younger guys. So I think it’s a good mix. We got a lot of talent and also people that have been there.”
Two of those experienced players on the Hoosier roster are familiar names to Pittsburgh soccer fans. Former Greensburg Central Catholic and Beadling SC standout Nate Ward has remained a constant presence for the Hoosiers, making 19 appearances, with two starts and a goal this season, in a simliar role he’s had with the program since he was a freshman, playing against Pitt in the College Cup two years ago.
Nyk Sessock, now a senior outside back, began his collegiate career playing under Vidovich at Pitt, where he started as a freshman along the backline, helping be part of the first Pitt team to win an NCAA tournament match in 2019. Sessock has started all 22 matches for the Hoosiers this season, and has been a solid two-way presence, adding seven assists this season.
Like the Panthers, the Hoosiers needed a big road win to reach the Final Four, as they went to UNC-Greensboro to take care of business, in a commanding 2-0 win.
IU has conceded only five goals in its last eight matches while allowing multiple goals in just one of those contests.
Senior forward Maouloune Goumballe scored his first goal of the season and his first since October 12, 2021 in the Quarterfinal Round win vs UNC-Greensboro.
It was a fabulous strike.
— Indiana Men's Soccer (@IndianaMSOC) December 3, 2022
Sophomore Samuel Sarver tallied his fourth goal of the year and second of the postseason, his 11th goal as a Hoosier to cap the win.
“I thought they played really well,” IU coach Todd Yeagley said of his team’s performance Saturday. “I wouldn’t say it was like the complete game of the year, but I thought we were really good in all aspects.”
Vidovich said after losing to the Hoosiers in May 2021, one step away from playing for a National Championship, that Indiana’s game plan was to keep numbers behind the ball, and they were dangerous in getting forward on the counter attack.
Pitt will have to make the most of its opportunities against Indiana, or the Hoosiers will make them pay.
On Saturday against Portland, the Panthers also dominated the match, yet struggled for 104 minutes to put away the Pilots, despite huge advantages in possession and shots.
Pitt also has a nice roster mix that includes some younger players too, but they’re led by a quartet who were key players in that tough loss to Indiana: attacking midfielder Valentin Noel, winger Bertin Jacquesson and central midfielders Filip Mirkovic and captain Jackson Walti.
“They know what you have to bring in a match like this,” Vidovich said.
It was Mirkovich and Walti who kept things steady in the middle, and allowed Pitt to keep coming forward against Portland, and eventually, Jacquesson and Noel connected as they have done so many times in their three seasons playing together as Pitt’s ‘French Connection’ to pull out the victory.
“Hopefully, they’ve shared enough in the locker room about the moment, being in the College Cup and how prestigious it is and how to cherish it and putting your best on the pitch.”
“I just would never bet against us. I feel pretty confident,” he said. “We’ve seen a lot of good teams. So has Indiana. It will be heckuva a game. That much I can promise you.”
Look for more coverage of the College Cup to come from John Krysinsky, including a deeper look at this Pitt-Indiana match-up in the coming days with special guest(s) on Sounding Off On Soccer Podcast, plus Dominic Campbell will provide on-site coverage from Cary, NC, on Friday.