Rutgers seeks redemption in final stretch of season
It wasn’t the way they wanted to go out.
Days removed from the heartbreak of a 1-0 overtime loss to Northwestern on Senior Day over the weekend, the Rutgers women’s soccer team went back to work Tuesday afternoon. Basking in the rare late October warmth, the players trotted up and down the practice field grass through their conditioning session that concluded practice.
The likelihood that the Scarlet Knights will reach the postseason with a bid to the NCAA Tournament is high. Rutgers (11-2-1, 7-2-1) fell down just two slots to No. 16 in the NCSAA Top 25.
But with three games left on the regular season slate, the same seniors that suffered an unfortunate ending to a remarkable and nearly historic season at Yurcak Field have grown hungrier and intensified their focus on what has been the ultimate goal all season long.
“I’m expecting a Big Ten conference championship ring … to hold up with my entire team,” said junior forward Amanda DeVolk.
The stepping stones to reach that goal begin this weekend — and it won’t be easy.
Rutgers travels out to Madison, Wisconsin, to begin its two-game weekend road trip Friday night at 8 p.m.
On paper, the No. 13 Badgers (13-2-1, 7-2-1) match up identically with the Knights in terms of records and rankings. But delving a bit deeper, the two teams pride themselves on the same principles of soccer.
“We’ve watched [Wisconsin] a couple of times. We know they’re a good team, well-coached, well-organized, and they can have some explosive players,” head coach Mike O’Neill said. “… We [the coaching staff] got right back at it on Sunday night. … It’s just the usual preparation and moving forward.”
Rutgers and Wisconsin thrive on their defenses. The Badgers lead the Big Ten with 11 shutouts, while the Knights rank third with nine shutouts. In goals allowed, the teams are slotted one and two, with Rutgers leading the conference with six and Wisconsin following with seven.
The Badgers’ lone two losses on the year came to Michigan and No. 4 Penn State — two elite Big Ten teams that Rutgers shut out, 1-0.
In order for Rutgers to bounce back, O’Neill said he wants the offense to generate more scoring opportunities and then capitalize with conviction.
“It’s important to create opportunities against Wisconsin because they are talented, so I think keeping the ball and creating opportunities through possessions [are] going to be a big focus of ours,” he said.
O’Neill took note of the increased “humble and hungry” mood surrounding the team in practice this week, where the Knights have been looking to grab six points in Big Ten play. With each win valued at three points, a win over the Badgers would be huge before entering Sunday’s match at Minnesota (8-7-1, 5-4-1).
Senior forward Amy Pietrangelo emphasized the need for her teammates to rally together down the stretch and not only bounce back, but come back even stronger.
“I think we definitely want to finish off strong so that we go into the playoffs feeling good,” Pietrangelo said. “It’s like three away games, so it’s going to be hard, but we can definitely do it.”
DeVolk chimed in on what adjustments the Knights need to make in order to reach their goal.
“I think we need to play our brand of soccer as well. [We need to] rise to the challenge and play Rutgers soccer,” she said. “Play possession, play keep the ball, move off the ball well and finish our opportunities.”
With the regular season setting as Rutgers packs its bags and boards a plane for its final multi-game road trip of the fall, fifth-year senior backer Tori Leigh reflected on how far the team has come and the drive it has to fulfill its goals established in the preseason.
“I think, coming into this season, no one expected us to do as well as we have because this is our first year in the Big Ten,” Leigh said. “… But we are doing well, people are starting to know who we are, so we want to [remain] consistent and keep up with it and not fall off now — there’s no time for that.”
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