Rutgers moves past struggles
Team of the year
The last time the Rutgers men’s soccer team last made it to the Big East Tournament was two years ago.
The amount of time that went by between the Scarlet Knights qualifying for the NCAA tournament was five years.
The last time the Knights made it all the way to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament was a decade ago.
But in the greatest single-season turnaround in Big East history, the Knights achieved all of those goals and more in earning The Daily Targum’s Team of the Year.
Still, the Rutgers’ future only a year ago looked bleak.
“It was difficult for us knowing every year we just came off a bad year, so we put in the hard work during the spring hoping it would pay off in the fall,” said senior midfielder Bryant Knibbs. “When it didn’t, you kind of get down on yourself and you kind of lose a little faith.”
Before their final campaign, Knibbs and his fellow seniors had a meeting and decided the soccer atmosphere at Rutgers needed to change. The Knights were 4-4-1 entering the middle of their season.
Then they collided with No. 2 Maryland, and everything changed.
The Knights entered the matchup lacking the leadership of team captain and junior defender Joe Setchell because of injury and leading scorer Juan Pablo Correa because of previous yellow cards.
The Knights took the No. 2 team in the nation to their limit, eventually succumbing to the Terrapins, 2-1, in double overtime.
“It showed this team had the ability to be a championship team,” said head coach Dan Donigan. “That kind of turned our attitude going into that postseason run. That meant all the difference to us in the success we enjoyed at the end of the season.”
The Knights went on an undefeated 5-0-2 tear to close the season, with two wins and a tie coming against three straight ranked opponents. Rutgers earned its first Big East Tournament bid since 2009, doing so with a first round bye.
Still, Connecticut ousted the Knights from the tournament in their first game, leaving their standing for the NCAA Tournament up in the air.
In the weeks leading up to the tournament announcement, the Knights were cautiously hopeful.
“We knew it was going to be tight,” said senior midfielder Nate Bordeau. “Most of us gathered in the locker room, and I have to say it was probably the most suspenseful day I have had.”
The Knights learned they would be the first Rutgers team to play in the NCAA Tournament since 2006, hosting Colgate in the first round.
“They showed the bracket, and one kid saw it, and we all started going crazy,” Knibbs said. “It was probably one of the best feelings of the season, knowing our hard work paid off and we were getting another game.”
After Rutgers dropped Colgate, that one more game turned into a contest at Boston College, which the Knights defeated in a matchup that went to penalty kicks.
“We were all happy — any team that kept advancing would be,” Knibbs said. “Once we were in, we knew we could make a little run.”
The Knights’ miracle run came to an end against UCLA in Los Angeles, 3-0.
“I think the main contributor to us being successful this year was the fact that we have had to work so hard in the past and we achieved so little,” Bordeau said. “We were kind of desperate, and we wanted to make something out of it, and that is what we did.”