Rutgers eyes upset over Virginia in NCAA Tournament
Madison Tiernan is well aware of the task ahead.
She’s heard all about Virginia. She knows the Cavaliers boast the best scoring offense in the country, tied for first on the year with a monstrous 73 goals in 21 matches. That mark averages out to a whopping 3.48 goals per game.
She’s consumed an endless breakdown of game film displayed and emphasized by the coaching staff as the Rutgers women’s soccer team kicks the intensity up a notch to prepare for the No. 4 team in the country.
In the mind of the sophomore midfielder, the Scarlet Knights can go punch-for-punch with the Cavaliers from start to finish.
“We had a lull there in our season for a little bit, but, I mean, coming back, being able to play at home one last time was just great for our confidence,” Tiernan said. “We’re going in knowing that we’re just as good, if not better, so we can beat any team in this country.”
After an emotional 2-0 victory over No. 10-seed La Salle for the first NCAA Tournament win at home since 2008, it’s no secret that the Knights feel good about themselves.
In the eyes of junior defender Erica Skroski, the team is where it needs to be.
“We came out against La Salle and we dominated the game and finished our chances,” she said. “So I think we’re back to where we were and going into Virginia like that is really important.”
Rutgers slipped up at the end of the regular season and it spilled over into the Big Ten Conference Tournament, where they suffered an early loss to Iowa and were sent back to Piscataway with the uncertainty of whether or not they would have a chance at redemption.
But so far, the Knights have done just that – and they feel they are finally back to the brand of soccer that head coach Mike O’Neill has preached from day one.
“It’s all about confidence. And we’ve been playing well, but we’ve just been unlucky in front of the goal and we’ve created more chances,” O’Neill said. “… When you create more chances, the opportunities to score are more obvious.”
As someone who scans all areas of the field, Tiernan attributed the success on the offensive end to the increased sense of urgency.
“I think it was, for a little, we just lost our bite,” she said. “We expected it to come to us instead of going after it and playing home in front of all those fans and stuff, it’s almost like you’re on stage and want to perform, so it’s kind of like getting it done and putting the ball in the back if the net.”
While Rutgers (13-5-1) rides the high of gaining its offensive instinct back and flashing its hard-nosed defensive swagger back after its 11th shutout of the season, the team goes up against one of the most talented and dangerous teams in the country.
The No. 2-seed in the region, the Cavaliers (19-2) are clicking on all cylinders at the right time. To kickoff the NCAA Tournament, Virginia annihilated High Point in an astounding 8-0 thrashing on their home turf.
The only two blemishes to their nearly spotless record both came at the hands of Florida State (19-1-1), once in the regular season and again in the ACC Tournament Final.
With that in mind, O’Neill has been studying the tapes from those two Virginia losses religiously in hopes of emulating the same result.
At the same time, however, the Knights have placed the main emphasis on improving their game. Regardless of who was asked, that was the one aspect that Rutgers believes any game – especially this one – comes down to.
“We just stress upon the points that we’ve done so well and still need to work on and that’s the way we need to progress,” said assistant coach Lubos Ancin. “We still need to get better game to game … we keep working hard as a team to improve.”
Associate head coach Meghan Ryan, who specializes in working with the defenders, went back to the film of the last game against La Salle to closely examine what went wrong on possessions where La Salle was able to break through the defense and manage to take shots.
Despite the 16-7 shooting advantage and seeming dominance the Knights possessed, Tiernan discussed the approach to honing the fundamentals of the defense and the key to composure against a team as dangerous as Virginia.
“We’ve kind of just been working on defending and getting ourselves organized, getting back to what we’re good at, finding the plan to beat [Virginia],” she said. “Obviously, they’re known as a pretty strong force [but] we’re going in, though, [with the mindset] that we’re gonna beat them.”
Evidently, that mentality begins at the top.
In his first season on the job, O’Neill has instilled a demeanor in this year’s squad.
It was the same one that opened the season with a bang way back on a muggy summer night in August when the Knights gashed Stony Brook, 3-1. It was the same one that shocked the world on the road in State College when Rutgers shutout a Penn State team ranked seventh in the nation and atop the Big Ten.
And as his team dares to venture south and into hostile territory in Charlottesville, Virginia, O’Neill has no doubt that those same mental principles and ethics can propel the Knights to record heights.
“They’re the favorite, so we have to have the mentality that we respect but don’t fear. We know that they’re a good team,” he said. “From day one, we’ve always focused on us – and we know we’re a good team. … We know it’s a tough place to win, but streaks are made to be broken. We’re going with the mentality that it’s not gonna be their night – it’s gonna be our night.”
For updates on the Rutgers women’s soccer team, follow @GarrettStepien and @TargumSports on Twitter.