The sky was a dull gray, a stiff wind was blowing leaves all across the practice field and most of Anderson University’s men’s soccer players were wrapped in several layers of clothing to defend against the elements.
And, yet, there was no place junior Brad Rusche would rather have been on Monday afternoon.
Thanks in no small part to Rusche’s four goals in a pair of victories last week, the Ravens (9-10-1) will travel to Terre Haute on Wednesday to play Rose-Hulman (12-4-3) as the No. 3 seed in the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference tournament.
With just two seniors and two juniors on the roster, this is the youngest team coach Scott Fridley has fielded in his 15 years at Anderson. It’s also grown into one of the most resilient.
In what was expected to be a rebuilding year, the Ravens lost their first two matches in HCAC play to prolong a slow start. But they posted a 5-1-1 mark in their final seven matches, including home wins against Manchester and Franklin last week, to earn a surprise berth in the four-team conference tourney.
“It’s awesome, especially after last year,” Rusche said. “We had an experienced team (in 2011) and had the highest expectations, and we ended up not even making it (into the postseason).”
Rusche is the unquestioned offensive star.
He leads AU with nine goals — six more than the next closest Raven — and his 21 total points are 12 more than any other player.
That makes it all the more remarkable there was a better chance he’d be playing for Anderson’s baseball team three years ago than starring on the pitch.
The national pastime was Rusche’s first love, and he assumed his athletic future was on the diamond as a multisport star at New Palestine High School.
That all changed after he made his official visit to AU.
Added together, it was more than enough to convince him to hang up his baseball cap and glove.
“It was a perfect fit,” Rusche said. “And I’ve never looked back.”
His decision paid handsome dividends for the Ravens last week.
Rusche recorded his first hat trick of the year in a 4-1 win against Manchester on Wednesday and followed that with his fourth game-winning goal of the season in a 2-1 victory against Franklin on Saturday.
The first win kept AU alive in a tight race for the final two spots for the conference tourney. The second clinched their unlikely playoff spot.
And the star who made it all possible didn’t even begin playing the sport until he was in the eighth grade.
“He brings excitement,” Fridley said. “He brings leadership, and he brings a work ethic every day that is unmatched. He just works hard.”
Rusche’s daily improvement mirrors that of this young AU team.
“Every day we get better,” Fridley said. “Every day we get smarter. Every day we figure something else out.”
Wednesday’s trip will be the second to Rose-Hulman this season for the Ravens. They lost a 2-1 decision there on Oct. 3 with three starters missing from the lineup.
The Ravens responded by shutting out their next four opponents in conference play, beginning the surge that carried them into the postseason.
Little was expected from AU when this season began, but now the young Ravens stand just two victories away from a berth in the NCAA tournament.
“We have high expectations for ourselves,” Rusche said. “We’ve come this far. I don’t see any reason to stop now.”
— George Bremer is a reporter for The Herald Bulletin. Story reposted with permission. Photo credit: John P. Cleary/The Herald Bulletin.
Anderson University is a private Christian university of 2,600 undergraduate and graduate students in central Indiana. Anderson University continues to be recognized as one of America's top colleges by U.S. News and World Report, The Princeton Review, and Forbes. Established in 1917 by the Church of God, Anderson University offers more than 65 undergraduate majors and graduate programs in business, music, nursing, and theology.