Men’s Soccer: Northwestern to take on Big Ten giant Indiana for conference title

Ava Wallace, Online Sports Editor

No. 22 Indiana has led the Big Ten for most of the season. The team scored 11 more points than any other team in the conference — 82 compared to second-place Ohio State’s 71 – has 9 shutouts for the season and has scored 30 goals from 9 different players.

So it appears Northwestern saved the best for last.

The Wildcats (10-4-3, 3-1-1 Big Ten) battle the Hoosiers (11-4-2, 3-2-0) for the Big Ten title Thursday night in Bloomington, Ind. For Indiana to take the title, the Hoosiers have to beat the Cats and Michigan has to either defeat or tie Michigan State on Saturday.

Not to be overshadowed, NU has also hovered near the top of the conference standings all season. All the Cats have to do is win Thursday, and the Big Ten title is theirs.

As the last game of the season, Indiana is NU’s only matchup in November. The Cats had high hopes going into October, during which the team played three Big Ten opponents as well as three in-state rivals. The team hoped to replicate 2011’s October unbeaten streak that sent them to the NCAA Tournament, but ended up 3-3-1 for the month.

After NU’s loss against DePaul on Sept. 26, the Cats held a midseason meeting to set goals for their last nine games. Sophomore midfielder Eric Weberman said in addition to setting specific goals for the offense, one of the team’s main focuses was keeping a clean sheet in the backfield.

Defensive efficiency turned out to be the Cats’ bread and butter for the second half of the season, and coach Tim Lenahan said the team also achieved two more specific goals in beating Michigan State and getting the opportunity to play for a conference title in Bloomington.

“Obviously there were a couple of hiccups (during the second half of the season),” Lenahan said. “The Bradley game and the Northern Illinois game … but mostly we wanted to make the last game important. We wanted to make sure that when we played in Indiana it was for the Big Ten.”

Historically, NU has not come up well against Indiana – the Hoosiers lead the series 24-2-3. But last season the teams’ two meetings ended in ties, and Lenahan is not bothered by the tumultuous past.

In addition to the program’s growth and success in the past few years, Lenahan said team mentality is a big factor heading into Thursday.

“If it was 20 years ago’s team playing? We wouldn’t have a chance,” Lenahan said. “But it’s this team, right now, that’s playing, and we believe we can win.”

Similarly to NU, Indiana has a disciplined defense that has allowed just 13 goals this season. The Cat’s have allowed only 14, but Indiana’s Luis Soffner is the only goalkeeper in the Big Ten to have more shutouts than sophomore goalkeeper Tyler Miller. Miller has 7 for the season and is second in conference standings for the category.

But one of the Hoosiers’ biggest assets is Eriq Zavaleta. The impressive forward has 15 goals so far this season including 5 game-winners. By comparison, NU’s leading scorer, freshman forward Joey Calistri, has 6 goals for the season.

Zavaleta also leads the conference in points, with 32 so far this season.

“He’s freshman of the year,” Lenahan said. “He’s going to unanimously be the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year. He’s a very strong, physical player – and he’s clever. He’s certainly a handful.”

Despite Zavaleta’s contributions, Indiana has had a few notable losses, including Big Ten losses to Michigan and Michigan State, though the Hoosiers were able to pull out a win over Penn State. Indiana also lost to then-No. 8 Notre Dame.

But records, offensive concerns and conference standings aside, it is easy to tell Lenahan and his team are exited to play Indiana for the conference on Thursday.

“These are the games you train up for,” Lenahan said. “You can’t ask for anything more.”