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Freitag directs smooth IU transition

12/16/2004

History prevented Mike Freitag from pulling too many surprises in his first season as head coach of the Indiana men's soccer team.

Having already served as an IU assistant for 11 seasons when he took over for Jerry Yeagley, who retired last season after the Hoosiers won their sixth national title, Freitag knew his players and visa versa. In fact, Yeagley wanted Freitag to take over the storied program.

It seems only one subtlety separates Freitag from his mentor.

"He was much smoother than I am," Freitag joked. "He was a little more politically correct in his answers. I'll say it the way it is. But the competitive juices are there. I think that's important and the players can see that. It rubs off on them."

And Freitag and the Hoosiers haven't missed a beat. Indiana (17-4-1) has only lost two games since Oct. 17 and has advanced to the NCAA Men's College Cup final at the Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif. (ESPN2, 4 p.m. ET Sunday).

The Hoosiers are looking to become the first team to repeat as national champs since they accomplished the feat in 1998-99.

Despite the smooth transition and return to the national finals, Freitag had to get past the seemingly self-imposed pressures of following a Hoosier legend.

Yeagley started Indiana's soccer program in 1973, and he left with more victories and a higher winning percentage than any other men's college soccer coach. He also led the Hoosiers to 16 appearances in the College Cup. In Yeagley's past seven seasons, the Hoosiers reached the final four six times and won three titles.

"There is a lot of pressure following a coach (like Yeagley)," said Freitag, who played on the Hoosiers' first College Cup team in 1976. "I was prepared for all of that. But I wanted to do well for the program that was developed here."

And while Yeagley's fingerprints always will be on the program, Freitag feels more and more comfortable calling the Hoosiers his team. That sense of normalcy didn't come with a lightning bolt but rather an evolution.

Said Freitag: "The more success we had, the more confident I was."

With only six seniors on the roster, the future could be more of the same for Freitag. Two players have led the way for Indiana.

Junior forward Brian Plotkin leads the team with 70 shots and nine assists and is second with 17 points. Freitag says Plotkin is the offensive playmaker right now and could be one of the differences against the Terrapins, who are 0-2 all-time against the Hoosiers.

There is also 18-year-old sophomore forward Jacob Peterson. This season, Peterson picked up from where last year's championship match finished with him scoring the game winner against St. John's. Peterson, who leads the team in points (22) and goals (10), scored twice in a 4-0 quarterfinal victory against Tulsa.

Two key Indiana starters will have their last go this weekend. Midfielder Danny O'Rourke and goalkeeper Jay Nolly -- both seniors -- have been the leaders off the field for the Hoosiers. Nolly has yet to allow a goal in the tournament as Indiana has outscored its opponents 6-0. O'Rourke is a semifinalist for the Hermann Trophy, the soccer version of the Heisman.

O'Rourke also has made a name for himself with his hair styles. Last year, it was cornrows. This year, it's what Freitag calls a "mohawk-mullet kind of thing. ... it's not looking too good."

The hair has just been part of a team chemistry that Freitag has been lucky to inherit and help foster. He has continued to set the high standards and challenges enforced by his predecessor, and Freitag hopes it will end with another national title.

"I'm a pretty emotional guy," Freitag said. "You'll see the tears flowing. It would be very special."

Special because it would be his first as head coach.

Joy Russo is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com. Send your comments/questions to joy.e.russo@espn.com.