Rutgers advances with shutout victory
As Mike O’Neill scanned his surroundings from the grass of Yurcak Field last Friday night, he took a couple of seconds to let it all marinate.
Fans and family stood along the foot of the bleachers watching members of the No. 25 Rutgers women’s soccer team stretch out and cool down as they always do after each game, but this time was different.
After a 2-0 shutout of No. 10-seed La Salle (14-6-2) in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, all felt right for the first-year head coach.
“The NCAA Round of 64 is always special. To do it at home makes it extra special,” O’Neill said. “But I think the environment on a cold night with over 1,000 people was nice. The community got behind [the team]. … It puts your program on display, and that’s what you’re looking for. You want people to come in and watch the girls and recognize the quality of our women’s soccer program.”
The Scarlet Knights (13-5-1) tumbled their way to the finish line of the regular season and continued the trend into the Big Ten Conference Tournament with an early exit to Iowa, dropping four of their last five matches.
But when it received an at-large NCAA Tournament bid, No. 7-seed Rutgers enjoyed a sense of rejuvenation and rebirth to the beginning of what many within the program viewed as a new season.
With the emphasis on conviction and aggression to establish control of the match early on, the Knights did just that three minutes into the game.
From 20 yards out, junior forward Amanda DeVolk sent in what initially appeared to be a cross, but the kick bent closer toward the net. La Salle goalkeeper Jessica Wiggins tried to secure the save but could only get one hand on the ball before it ricocheted into the net to give Rutgers the early 1-0 advantage.
The Knights proceeded to bury the Explorers.
Rutgers racked up 11 shots while La Salle managed just one in the first half alone, eventually winning on the shooting end with a 17-6 advantage.
Stef Scholz added to the margin for the Knights shortly after the second half got underway. The senior forward received a nifty pass from sophomore midfielder Madison Tiernan in the box, and all she had to do from there was tap the ball in for the goal in the 54th minute.
Scholz’s seventh goal of the season sparked Rutgers to a commanding 2-0 lead in the second half.
While it was likely her final game in Piscataway, Scholz felt refreshed knowing she left on a high note after a 1-0 overtime collapse against Northwestern one month ago on Senior Day.
“It feels really good to finish strong and score in my last game at Yurcak and just a really good way to end at home,” Scholz said. “So I’ll always have that memory with me going forward.”
The Knights held it together on defense the rest of the way. Controlling the ball for a huge chunk of time, Rutgers ensured La Salle couldn’t generate anything offensively.
Freshman goalkeeper Casey Murphy recorded three saves in her NCAA Tournament debut, helped by a stout effort from Rutgers’ backline. Junior defenders Brianne Reed, Maggie Morash and Erica Skroski powered through all 90 minutes of the contest to aid Murphy near the net.
Noting the aura of the atmosphere created by fans, friends and family, Murphy couldn’t get enough of her first taste of the biggest stage for collegiate soccer.
“The environment was honestly nothing compared to club soccer,” she said. “Just having all your family and friends in the stands and knowing you have to win to advance and all the pressure that goes along with that, I mean, personally, I love postseason play and was very excited to get the ‘W.’”
The first home NCAA Tournament win for the Knights since Nov. 10, 2012 bolstered their record at Yurcak Field to 9-1 on the season.
Getting back to the brand of soccer the team is accustomed to, Rutgers seems to have turned the page from its lapse late in the season at the right time. With a trip to No. 2-seed Virginia (19-2) looming Friday in the next round, the obstacles project to only grow more challenging.
But O’Neill feels comfortable with what he has seen from his players, which gives him enough reason to believe the Knights are on the right path entering their next match as underdogs.
“The quality [of play] has been there, but that’s our final product,” he said. “I think the thing that’s most important is our brand of soccer is a possession-oriented brand of soccer. You have to choose the chances when you want to go after people. The girls played really well and … on both sides of the ball, so that’s exciting to watch for our coaching staff.”
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