Rutgers embraces rematch with Iowa
Upon arrival to the Vander Zee Family Field, there was not a single person to be found.
Tuesday afternoons normally consisting of drills, intersquad scrimmaging and conditioning were a constant at the practice site of the No. 23 Rutgers women’s soccer team, but this week granted an exception.
Assistant coach Lubos Ancin hopped out from the gates to the field and trotted down to his car, frantically beginning to change and pack.
As he slipped out of his soccer cleats and stowed away his bags into the back of his jet black SUV before speeding off to Trenton to catch a flight to Indiana, Ancin described what the past few days have been like handling an unprecedented, quick turnaround.
“I think they’re ready,” Ancin said, when asked how the players have reacted to the up-tempo preparations.
Then, he paused and took those words back.
“No — I know they’re ready,” he said.
For the good of his team, the first-year goalkeeper assistant should hope he is right. After a three-game losing streak appeared to have derailed the Scarlet Knights for a moment, they regained their composure following a 2-0 shutout on the road at Ohio State.
With the first game of the Big Ten Conference Tournament set to get underway early Wednesday morning at 10:30 a.m. against No. 5 seed Iowa, the No. 4 seed Knights venture into unchartered waters but against a familiar opponent.
Earlier in the season, Rutgers conquered its conference road troubles with its first win at a Big Ten opponent coming Sept. 28 in a 1-0 shutout against Iowa. The Hawkeyes came into the game with an 8-1 overall record and No. 13 ranking in the Soccer America Women’s Top 25.
Sophomore midfielder Madison Tiernan, who lifted the Knights to victory with her game-winning goal in the 50th minute in that contest and generated some much-needed offense in the most recent bounce-back performance, believes the team is back to where it needs to be.
“We had a lot of training. It’s a quick turnover. I mean, we flew in [Saturday],” Tiernan said. “… I just think we’re back. We have our heads back. … Everybody’s on the same page now.”
Having played against Iowa before is an advantage senior midfielder Cassie Inacio believes comes into play for her team.
“We obviously have that confidence from winning that game, and we played really well. But at the same time, we’re not going to take anything for granted,” Inacio said. “It’s just another game. Regardless of the past, we’re going to go out and play our game, and we’re coming off a great win against Ohio State, so I think we have momentum. … I think we’re feeling really confident and really good.”
Times have changed since that match against the Hawkeyes in Iowa City.
While Rutgers shot up the Big Ten and the national rankings prior to the adversity in its recent losing skid, Iowa has been up and down, with the roller coaster of the regular season coming to a halt with a 12-6-1 record overall and a 7-5-1 mark in conference play.
The Hawkeyes boast an offensive attack that sits around the middle of the pack among their Big Ten peers, ranking sixth in goals and points on the season.
Forward Cloe Lacasse has been the main catalyst behind their attack, driving the offense with a team-best 10 goals, along with playing the double-role of the distributor with six assists to add up to 26 total points on the year.
But with Rutgers seeming to have returned back to form after its 10th shutout of the season, the program remains firm in its belief that it has gotten back to living by its motto of no service, no shots, no goals.
Freshman goalkeeper Casey Murphy, who has been a rock between the posts all year long, described the buildup and emotion going into her first taste of collegiate postseason play.
“I’m excited. Me, personally, I love tournament time. I think it’s the time for us to show how hard we’ve worked,” Murphy said. “Since the beginning, we’ve said we wanted to win a Big Ten Championship, so now we get to finally prove ourselves and … go after that goal.”
Head coach Mike O’Neill vented his frustrations in the past two weeks during the span of the Knights’ woes on offense, saying the only element missing to the winning equation was the ability to finish and capitalize off scoring opportunities.
But after the first multi-goal game since a 2-1 win against Illinois on Oct. 17, which also stands as the last time Rutgers was not held scoreless prior to its three-game skid, O’Neill believes his team has made the proper adjustments that can pay dividends when the team arrives back.
“We just talk so much about no pressure, just play,” O’Neill said. “And then, when the chances come, just make sure you take advantage of the opportunities and then … be disciplined in the details of those opportunities. … They stayed the course, and they stayed focused.”
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