Senior Day offers win-and-in chance
It may not have been the storybook ending that seniors Yannick Salmon and Chris Edwards envisioned in their final season on the Rutgers men's soccer team, but the final chapter has not yet been written on the duo's collegiate career.
The Scarlet Knights have only one Big East triumph thus far, but a win over DePaul in the regular season finale would give the team a berth in the conference tournament.
The stage is set for a Saturday night showdown at Yurcak Field: Win and the Knights advance. Lose and the season is over.
"These are the games you live for and go to college for," Salmon said. "It's just a huge opportunity for us. I'm excited. I can't wait for Saturday night."
Rutgers (4-10-1, 1-7) enters Saturday's matchup after falling, 2-1, Wednesday night at South Florida. While a win would have given the team momentum heading into the weekend, it would not have guaranteed a postseason berth.
No matter what happened, it still comes down to DePaul.
"We know that if we don't win, it's over. I think that's enough motivation in and of itself," said junior captain Andrew Cuevas. "This is definitely a game for [our seniors]. Yannick always has gotten that clutch goal for us and Chris has been such a great defender for us over the last four years. It would be great to send them off with a win and let them play in at least one more Big East game."
After transferring from Maryland his sophomore year, Salmon amassed 12 goals — six this season — and has started every game in three years on the Banks.
The 6-foot midfielder from Westbury, N.Y., arrived at Rutgers as a defender and has seen time at different positions all over the field.
"One thing that I have learned is that I've played a number of positions. Rutgers showed me just how versatile I could be," Salmon said. "Rutgers gave me a second chance after I transferred from Maryland. Altogether it's been the best experience I could have asked for."
Edwards, a mainstay on the Knights' backline since 2007, has only seen time in nine matches this year as injuries hampered his senior campaign.
As one of his defending compatriots, Cuevas knows just how tough this year has been on Edwards.
"It's been really hard on Chris," Cuevas said. "It has taken a toll on him this year, but he has tried to remain positive through it all and he understands that if he isn't healthy, he's not going to be able to help out the team. Hopefully he sees some minutes on Saturday because he is getting healthier."
Head coach Dan Donigan noted that Edwards might see some action against the Blue Demons (3-9-5, 0-5-3) but not in his usual outside back role since sophomore Dragan Naumoski's emergence in the senior's absence.
"Dragan has done a great job in his stead, so I don't see the need to make a change. We might give Chris some minutes in the midfield on Saturday night," Donigan said. "[Chris is] healthy and he'll be available. It all depends on how we decide to manage his return to the team."
Even if Edwards is unable to go Saturday, Donigan praised his and Salmon's ability to aid the coaching staff's transition in its first season — a transition that could have been hard on the senior class.
"As many people know, they have had some tough times in the past," Donigan said. "To come in and have the smooth transition and just the environment that we try to create here has been very good. And without the help of the captains and the leadership of those kids, that's not possible.
"I am very proud of them. I hope that they get opportunities — whether it's soccer or post-soccer opportunities. I want the best for these guys. That's the reward out of our job, when those kids go and do good things."
There will be a time to discuss post-soccer plans, but now is not that time. The Knights are fighting for their playoff lives, and according to Salmon, it could not mark a better end to a four-year ride.
"It kind of feels like all of the cards are falling into place for us," Salmon said. "We haven't done our part to win games, but other teams haven't been winning either. And our last game of the season is at home against the team that we are fighting with. We really couldn't have asked for a better situation."