Opening bye highlights RU turnaround
Five seniors from the Rutgers women's soccer team celebrated their final regular season game Sunday for the Scarlet Knights at midfield prior to kickoff.
Unfortunately for visiting Louisville, the party did not end during pregame activities.
The Knights romped the Cardinals with three second-half goals, earning the No. 3 seed in the Big East Tournament and a first-round bye in the process.
"The seniors are the girls I came in with," said redshirt junior Tricia DiPaolo, whom the Big East named to its Weekly Honor Roll after a five-point performance last weekend. "They're my really close friends and I just want to make sure that their day is the best it can be. We sent them out with a win — what other way?"
However, the 2010 season has been far from a cakewalk for several Knights.
Senior forward Ashley Jones assisted on the final Rutgers (10-8-1, 5-5-1) goal Sunday, giving her six points to finish out the regular season — a far cry from her team-leading 19 a year ago.
The Feasterville, Pa., native spent a majority of the regular season overcoming a leg injury she suffered in an October 2009 match against DePaul at Yurcak Field.
The Knights' weekend accomplishments — to be fair — were not the only feats on Jones' mind.
"It's really special, considering we didn't do too hot at the beginning of the season and then we picked it up in the end," Jones said. "Anything really can happen as long as you play your hardest and work really hard. Everyone played so well."
Despite a positive effort rehabilitating in the offseason, Jones did not begin earning starter's duties until mid-October matches at Syracuse and St. John's.
Jones' insertion into the lineup, along with a flurry of other moves by head coach Glenn Crooks, helped give the Knights a week to prepare for its Oct. 31 matchup at No. 2-seed West Virginia.
"Our expectation every year is to make the [Big East] Tournament," Crooks said. "To be honest with you, if we don't finish in the top five in the division, then that's been a very poor year for us. You have to make things happen to get there, and that's no disrespect to anybody in our division. We just think we're better than that. Now what we're doing is fighting for our NCAA [Tournament] lives."
Making the NCAA Tournament is nothing new for the quintet of Rutgers seniors, who own 62 victories during their career on the Banks and two trips to the Sweet 16.
Despite the impressive résumé, one member of the group's final season was in question before it even began.
Fifth-year senior Gina DeMaio is the most decorated member of the class, having set the Rutgers all-time assists record against Providence on Oct. 3 and being named a three-year team captain.
However, DeMaio didn't receive a medical redshirt until before the 2010 campaign and needed half a season to regain her old form after suffering an ACL tear on Sept. 13, 2009 — none of which is lost on the Parsippany Hills product.
"It feels really good," said DeMaio of the team's conference tournament berth. "We struggled a bit this season and that was in question a lot of times, but I'm glad we were able to come out here [last Friday] and get the win."
Despite the fanfare revolving around the team's ascent in the Big East on Senior Day on Sunday, Crooks maintained a tunnel vision requisite for the bigger picture.
"It's nice. I don't think of it as [the seniors'] last game because we've got another game," the 11th-year head coach said. "I don't have too much. We've still got more to play so I'll think about it more when the season's over."
Next up for the Knights is an intriguing Halloween matchup with No. 24 West Virginia (13-4-1, 9-1-1), which bested Rutgers in last year's quarterfinals of the Big East Tournament at Yurcak Field.
The Mountaineers come into the conference showdown in Morgantown, W. Va., on the heels of a 10-game unbeaten streak and are one of three Big East teams ranked in the NSCAA Top 25.
Junior forward Blake Miller leads three West Virginia players in double figures in points with 22, including nine goals.
Senior goalkeeper Kerri Butler has allowed only 15 goals in 18 games en route to an .810 save percentage.
The Mountaineers sport a 7-1-1 record at home this season and are 5-0-1 in Morgantown in Big East play.
For the Knights to play spoiler Sunday in the conference quarterfinals, their own version of the "Fab Five" must gear up for one final run.
And they will have a full week to prepare.
"It's really important because a lot of us are nicked up," Jones said. "We need that extra couple days. It really helps when everybody does get that extra couple days' rest … because then everybody comes out fresh."