Sa headlines youthful core looking to bloom next season
Every offseason signals change, but entering next year the Rutgers men’s soccer team must contend with the loss of its longtime offensive leader.
Senior forward Kene Eze, who led or tied the team lead in goals in each of his three seasons with the Scarlet Knights after transferring from Williams Paterson, is leaving the program.
More than just a scorer, the Sayreville, N.J., native provided a dynamic size and speed element that commanded defenses’ attention.
But now Rutgers, which will return most of its youthful core next season, has an entire offseason to establish a new method of attack without Eze.
“We mixed and matched people [this year]. We tried to get into different scoring positions,” said freshman midfielder Erik Sa. “It wasn’t easy to just do that on the run, but I’m sure next year I know the coaches are going to be working hard to figure out how we’re going to create scoring chances, and I’m for sure going to do my best to help do that.”
Much of it could fall on the Watchung, N.J., native.
Sa, one of the top recruits in the nation coming into the year, only found the back of the net once as a rookie. A star center midfielder in high school, Sa often played out wide in Rutgers’ deep midfield.
As he prepares for his second season, Sa eyes a breakout campaign. Sophomore midfielder Mael Corboz, whom Sa calls one of his best friends, provides a template.
Corboz was also more of a distributer as a rookie. Taking what he learned about the college game, he worked to get forward more, tallying seven goals this season.
“I saw how hard [Corboz] worked last year, and he’s always going to improve. That’s just the nature of how he is,” Sa said. “For me, I think just getting better in all aspects of the game this offseason. I’m going to work as hard as I can to get stronger, to get faster, to get better going forward.”
Sa’s stigma this season was his sporadic play off the ball, where head coach Dan Donigan said he needed to see more aggressive tackling. Rutgers often struggled with retaining possession.
But the 5-foot-10, 155-pounder wants to mostly stay true to his trademark on-ball skills.
“I think more of it for me is just find ways to find the ball and kind of — not avoid the physical part of the game — but limit it so I can distribute with my technical ability, rather than my physical ability,” Sa said. “I can work as hard as I want to get bigger and stronger and tougher … but I think what I can bring to the team is more of a technical sense.”
Along with Sa and Corboz, sophomore forwards Mitchell Taintor and J.P. Correa also must develop more on-ball craftiness for Rutgers to score next season.
In their defensive third, the Knights will return freshman goalkeeper David Greczek. Greczek compiled the third-most saves (108) in program history and was the first Knight to crack triple-figures since 1995.
Eze has no doubt the program remains in good hands.
“I feel like the talent and definitely the drive is there with the team,” Eze said. “I feel like they’re going to learn from this season and they’re going to improve on that. … That tournament experience is something that we definitely needed this year. For the guys coming in, to taste that sense of postseason play, I feel like that’s definitely going to carry on in the next couple years.”