Trap game awaits Knights before No. 5
The marquee matchup for the Rutgers women's soccer team has always rested with Notre Dame. The Scarlet Knights finished second last season in the Big East's National Division to the Fighting Irish and haven't beaten the team from South Bend, Ind., since 2001.
No. 5 Notre Dame attracts so much attention that the Knights' Sunday matchup with the Irish at Alumni Stadium on the campus of Notre Dame will be televised on ESPNU.
But before head coach Glenn Crooks' team can do battle with its conference rivals, it will first have to settle for a match tonight in Chicago against the division's second-place team.
"That [DePaul] game is really critical for us to do well," said senior forward Ashley Jones, who owns two goals and an assist this season. "We're not even focused on Notre Dame yet. All of our preparation has been for DePaul. We have to get over that hump with DePaul first before we can even think about going into the game against Notre Dame. We need two wins this weekend."
Jones has extra incentive for a victory over the Blue Demons.
The Knights' leading scorer in 2009 went down with a season-ending leg injury against DePaul last year at Yurcak Field. Rutgers needed a goal from defender Julie Lancos in overtime to seal a victory against a pesky Blue Demon team.
The Knights (8-5, 3-2) scored only seven goals in as many games to close out the season without Jones, falling to South Carolina in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
Still, Jones dismissed the reunion with DePaul (8-4-2, 3-2) as simply another Big East game in which Rutgers needs to capitalize.
"I haven't really thought about it," Jones said. "A couple of the girls brought it up to me. I'm just going into it as just another game in the season. What happened last year happened and I'm doing so much better. I'm almost 100 percent."
The Feasterville, Pa., native scored the final goal in Rutgers' 4-1 win over Providence last Sunday — her first tally at home since Sept. 18, 2009.
The goal from Jones could not have come at a better time for the Knights, who travel to the Midwest to take on DePaul to kick-start a four-game road swing.
"It's very important to have that momentum going into a road trip," said senior Gina DeMaio, who set the school record for assists with 28 against Providence. "We ended [last weekend] on a really good note and we're just going to take that into training this week and eventually to the road this weekend."
The Blue Demons come into tonight's Big East showdown on a three-game winning streak against conference opponents, with all three victories coming during extra time.
Senior Callie Hemming paces the DePaul attack with 11 points, followed by classmates Lauren Pagone (10) and Tara Strickland (10).
The Big East named Pagone to the conference's weekly Honor Roll last Monday after the senior midfielder scored the game-tying goal last Friday against St. John's and assisted on the game-winner.
"DePaul's good. We were fortunate to beat DePaul last year [at Yurcak Field] on Lancos' game-winner," Crooks said. "They outplayed us at times in that match last year.
"[DePaul has] a tough facility. It's an interesting environment and for those who haven't been there, it's rather challenging."
Rutgers travels 90 miles east to South Bend to do battle with the Irish after facing DePaul.
Last year's matchup at Yurcak Field ended in heartbreak for the Knights, who surrendered the decisive goal in the match's 84th minute in a 1-0 loss.
The Big East penciled in Notre Dame (11-1, 5-0) as the National Division's preseason favorite, while the conference also pegged Irish junior forward Melissa Henderson as the Big East Preseason Offensive Player of the Year.
Henderson leads the Irish with 10 goals and 26 points, while senior Rose Augustin and freshman Elizabeth Tucker are tied for second on the team with six goals apiece.
The Irish's sole loss came in a 2-1 road decision to No. 14 UCLA.
The Knights' lack of success against Notre Dame in the past decade doesn't seem to faze Jones, who after rehabilitating her broken leg sees each year in a new light.
"Every season is a new season and we're a brand new team," Jones said. "We have a bunch of new girls that came in and stepped up for us, so I think it is a new season. We can't harp on the past. It's all about this year. What are we going to do to beat Notre Dame?"
The answer to Rutgers' question may rest on the feet of a senior who knows a thing or two about a comeback.