“Oh, it’s incredible,” Tom Morris said, staring out at the wild celebration in front of him.
A baggy national championship t-shirt draped over his shoulders (aren’t all such shirts baggy?), Morris looked on as the young men whose bodies he made for a living jumped and sprinted and hugged and screamed, and thrust the most coveted of their sport’s trophies into the air.
Here was a moment of celebration, in a year full of adversities of all kinds.
Indiana battled against labels of mental weakness, of psychological and defensive frailty. The Hoosiers had to rally from a gut-punch end to their regular season, and a disappointing 90-minute stay in the Big Ten Tournament. Jacob Bushue, a “warrior,” according to his coach, played the entire postseason on a partially torn meniscus.
And before any of that, there was the matter of rallying around Morris, who broke his neck in a mountain biking accident in May and has become central to this team’s identity since.
“Yes,” IU coach Todd Yeagley said after the game, when asked if this eighth national title campaign should be remembered for more than its results.
“Tom Morris helped all of these players get to where they are, and to see him fight, and his courage, these players took that on. We talked about that a lot, and they used his strength down the stretch.”
Fred Glass called this a team of destiny, and so it was. But it was a team that made its destiny by playing its best soccer in the moments when its best soccer was most called for. It might not have always been the best team in the Big Ten or the country, but it was a team tested and fashioned by adversity, one whose opponents Friday and Sunday were not altogether troublesome, because they were not the worst Indiana had had to deal with this season.
It began with Morris’ accident, and the team’s response of rallying around him during his recovery.
Players became some of the most energetic arms of fundraising efforts.
Junior midfielder Harrison Petts finished best in his age group at a sprint triathlon in the summer, donating hundreds of dollars raised to Tom’s Team, the central hub of that fundraising.
Several Hoosiers, including seniors Luis Soffner and Caleb Konstanski, helped organize and lead Push For Tom, a benefit in early July that raised more than $10,000. These were moments in the preseason that bonded this team together.
Indiana was rarely without the talent to match an opponent this season, but it sometimes lacked the killer thrust to pair with that ability. Losses to Akron and Notre Dame, each 1-0, suggested a team just short of elite capacity, and after a fine start to its Big Ten campaign, Indiana tumbled to the floor, losing or drawing its last three conference games and then falling out of the conference tournament after just one match.
No one would have been faulted for wondering, in the moments after IU’s 2-1 defeat to Michigan State on Nov. 7, if the season was stumbling toward quick conclusion.
“After the Michigan State game I think something just clicked in that we wanted this bad,” junior midfielder Nikita Kotlov, scorer of Sunday’s winner, said. “Ever since, Notre Dame and all these games, we’ve been clicked in, and everyone was playing their role consistently.”
Indeed, Indiana suddenly found answers it had lacked in its regular season — to defensive composure late in tight games, to the ability to dominate the ball, to convert chances when they arrived, and not work themselves out of good chances while trying to create perfect ones.
A 4-1 victory over Xavier, Indiana’s last home match of the season, was simple enough — a workmanlike affair turned into a three-goal rout by opportunistic scoring.
Indiana tested a newfound resolve in defense with a 2-1 win at Notre Dame, the tournament’s No. 1 overall seed, and a 1-0 victory at North Carolina, which had not lost in 40 home matches prior.
By the time the Hoosiers arrived in Hoover for Friday’s semifinal against Creighton, they had the only two ingredients necessary for the eighth national title they so craved — a winning formula, and the mental fortitude with which to execute it.
“We said from the beginning that our defense is going to win championships,” Soffner said, and so it did. Of the four teams that qualified for the College Cup, Indiana allowed the fewest goals throughout the season, and it allowed none over 180 minutes this weekend.
Rarely does a team reach December in this sport without deserving to be there, but just one this weekend was playing its best soccer at precisely the right moment. Indiana might have won its two College Cup games in 2012 by scorelines of 1-0 apiece, but neither victory looked too troublesome.
Tested by adversities of all kinds — from the willingness of starters to play through injury, to the doubt of a season nearly lost, to the humbling challenge of having to deal with a good friend in unknowable pain — Indiana was always the only victor in this College Cup. Creighton and Georgetown couldn’t have offered more of a task than the ones these Hoosiers have had to overcome.
“Those,” Todd Yeagley said afterward, “are little pieces that can make a championship team.”
Yeagley, an assistant coach for Indiana’s sixth and seventh national championships, would know. Now, so do his players.