Knights look to make history at home
The date was Aug. 22, 2011.
Under the bright lights of Yurcak Field, Stef Scholz donned No. 9 on her back and “RUTGERS” across her chest, in scarlet block letters plastered on her white uniform.
As a freshman, Scholz earned a start at forward and played 41 minutes in a memorable 1-0 shutout win over Drexel to kick off her freshman campaign and collegiate career.
Along with Scholz, fellow classmates Cassie Inacio and Amy Pietrangelo made their Rutgers women’s soccer debuts. Tori Leigh, a sophomore at the time, earned a start on defense.
Come this weekend, it could be the final time that the quartet of seniors gets its chance to shine again in front of their home crowd.
“It’s starting to hit me a little bit this week. The season flew by,” Scholz said. “I can’t believe it’s already senior week and it’s bittersweet. I’m really gonna miss the girls and the program here.”
Scholz stopped herself.
“But we’re not done yet,” she said.
With five games remaining on the regular season slate, the No. 14 Scarlet Knights host Illinois at 7 p.m. on Friday night and Northwestern on Sunday at 1 p.m. in their home finale.
Rutgers (10-1-1, 6-1-1) has an opportunity to send its seniors out in the same fashion they arrived: with a win.
Even more compelling is the opportunity to do something that hasn’t been done in quite some time.
At 7-0 on their home turf and the final two home games this weekend, the Knights have an opportunity to finish the season undefeated at Yurcak Field for the first time since 1987.
In its 30-year history, Rutgers has gone undefeated twice. The Knights went 5-0 in their inaugural season in 1984 and were 8-0 in 1987.
“We love playing at home and we’re enjoying playing at home. I think if we won these next two games at home and ended our regular season, that’d be great,” Leigh said. “It speaks volumes to us how much pride we have in Rutgers and how much pride we have playing on our home field. As a senior, I would love to finish my season and my senior year that way.”
Over the years, home-field advantage has been relevant at Rutgers. Including the seven wins earned this year, the Knights boast a 31-7-2 mark at home.
In order to make history, Rutgers will have to take care of the Fighting Illini (9-5, 4-4) in its opening game of the weekend. Once ranked as high as No. 19, Illinois has dropped three matches in a row, with the most recent coming in double-overtime to Minnesota.
But the Fighting Illini still hold the Big Ten’s most dangerous offensive weapon in Jannelle Flaws. The senior forward is the conference’s fourth overall leading scorer with 48 points, and tied for top goal maker at 23.
If the Knights can contain Flaws and obtain the victory, the attention then shifts to Northwestern.
Looking at the matchup on paper, it almost looks like a sure win for Rutgers.
But while the Wildcats (5-7-2, 1-6-1) have struggled severely throughout their season and lost six of their last seven matches, their most recent win came in an upset over Illinois — when the Fighting Illini were ranked No. 19.
With the unpredictability of what either opponent may be able to conjure up when the ball gets rolling in each game, head coach Mike O’Neill said that the Knights will keep their focus.
“[Being undefeated at home] means a lot to us,” O’Neill said. “We like [Yurcak Field] to be a fortress where people come in and it’s very hard to win here, so we want to continue that but we don’t take it for granted.”
With the opportunity to send the seniors out on a high and historical note, there is an extra incentive going into the final home stand of the year.
Contrary to the cliché of wanting to win for the seniors, it is the seniors that want to win for their teammates.
“I was talking with Stef and Cassie and they were talking so much about [how] everyone preaches … let’s win one for the seniors. It’s the opposite here. The seniors want to win for everybody else,” O’Neill said. “I think that’s an environment that’s been created by the teams of the past and will continue along with this senior group that they want to be successful for everybody else.”
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