Eze’s breakout gives Rutgers hope in AACs
Nearing the end of a season littered with inconsistencies, there was only one certainty for senior forward Kene Eze entering last Friday’s AAC Tournament play-in game.
If the Rutgers men’s soccer team did not prevail against Cincinnati, that meant the ending of the Sayreville, N.J., native’s college career.
Eze vowed Oct. 19, upon returning from a month-long hamstring injury, his season was far from over. But he did not score a goal in the Scarlet Knights’ final three regular season games, as the team failed to win and improve its tournament seeding.
“The whole season was frustration, going to games and sitting out,” Eze said. “The three games I came back I didn’t score, but I knew I was getting close. I had an assist [Nov. 2] against Central Florida, so I knew it was coming. I told myself if I get this first goal, the goals are going to come.”
He was right.
Cringing at the thought of letting his team down, Eze put on a show in Louisville, Ky. He punished Cincinnati with a career-high four goals in the second half, as Rutgers advanced with a 5-1 win.
“I knew that could’ve been my last game as a Rutgers player and our last game of the season obviously, so it was really emotional,” Eze said. “We knew going in if we played our game, we’d have a chance. Going in the chances were grim, but we pulled it out.”
It rescued a season in which the Knights (7-10-2, 2-5-1), a reeling eight seed, never won since Oct. 5.
The momentum carried Rutgers to a 1-0 upset win against top-seeded Louisville the next night. Sophomore midfielder Mael Corboz delivered the game-winning goal in the 86th minute to push the Knights to the semifinals.
It was no coincidence that Corboz — Rutgers’ second-leading scorer — found the back of the net for the first time since Sept. 15.
“When Kene went down earlier in the season, everything became more difficult for everyone on the team — I think more importantly, me, because a lot of the teams were kind of queuing in on just marking me,” Corboz said. “They didn’t have to worry about Kene. But when Kene’s here, they’re worried about his speed and the defense drops.”
Now back to form for the first time in nearly two months, a rejuvenated Eze is stretching defenses to their limit again.
His last three goals against Cincinnati came within 13 minutes of each other as the Bearcats ultimately became helpless.
“As the game was going on, the game opened up,” Eze said. “I felt like I was able to get more space from my defender, so I knew whenever they had the ball, I’d get forward and make sure I’d get behind the defense.”
Eze’s resurgence has the Knights on the cusp of their first NCAA Tournament appearance in two seasons if they win the AAC Tournament.
Head coach Dan Donigan said Eze must keep his sense of urgency high while not looking ahead.
“You can’t really worry about becoming a professional or getting a chance in MLS,” Donigan said. “You’ve just got to focus on your season because those things will have a negative impact on you if your head’s not where it needs to be.”
With two more wins this weekend, Eze can help further save a season that held little hope less than a week ago.
“That’s what every senior wants, so just to have the opportunity, I know I’ll do everything to help my team get as far as we can,” Eze said.