Rutgers seeks tournament win at home
When the No. 25 Rutgers women’s soccer team endured the heartbreak of a 1-0 overtime loss to Northwestern on Senior Day on Oct. 19, Cassie Inacio, Tori Leigh, Amy Pietrangelo and Stef Scholz all thought they had played their final game on their home field.
But one month later, they have returned.
In front of the Scarlet Knights’ home fans, friends and family for at least one last time, No. 7-seed Rutgers (12-5-1) hosts No. 10-seed La Salle (14-5-1) at 7 p.m. Friday night to kick off its 2014 NCAA Tournament in the Round of 64.
Going from the uncertainty of whether their season would even continue to host an NCAA Tournament game, the recent buzz has the Knights appearing rejuvenated and ready.
Finally, with some layoff since the chaos of flying and busing around to four different states out in the Midwest where Rutgers dropped four out of five matches, the team enters Friday’s match at Yurcak Field after a nine-day layoff.
The extended period of rest is something head coach Mike O’Neill made use of in preparing his team for more soccer.
“At this stage of the game, yeah, [we’re ready]. It’s just fine-tuning some things,” O’Neill said. “We’ve talked about [how] we’ve had the quality all year long, but what we kind of lacked the past few games was the finished product, so that’s what we’re working on. We’re working on the small details, but it’s the details that separate good seasons and great seasons.”
The difference in play that remains to be seen with the first-year head coach’s team is the play on offense. Since its last home game, Rutgers has had trouble consistently finding the back of the net. The Knights have been held scoreless in all of their past four losses.
The struggles held true in their most recent match in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten Conference Tournament, where they outshot Iowa, 16-9, but dropped the match due to an early Hawkeyes goal in the 10th minute and the inability to convert on scoring opportunities.
Despite the fact that La Salle is a mid-major school, junior defender Brianne Reed knows Rutgers is the first to know not to underestimate its opponent.
Beginning to break down film on the Explorers as early as Tuesday, Reed said the Knights have zoned in on how La Salle operates on both sides of the ball.
The fact that she and her teammates have game experience against them is something Reed thinks adds to the level of preparation and confidence entering the match.
“We know what we need to do,” Reed said. “We played them in the spring and the preseason before, so we know what to expect. We just have to execute our game plan.”
Earning an at-large bid as a mid-major school out of the Atlantic 10 after suffering a 2-1 loss in the conference championship game against Dayton, the Explorers enter Piscataway having won 10 of their last 11 matches.
Rutgers, which has boasted one of the best defenses in the country all year long, is faced with the task of slowing down La Salle senior forward Kelsey Haycock. The Point Pleasant, New Jersey, native is tied for third in the country with 20 goals and seven game-winners.
Her running mate, fellow senior midfielder Maryam Huseini, leads the Explorers with 12 assists, a mark good for 12th in the nation.
Together, the duo helps formulate one of the top offenses in the country. La Salle has been a goal-scoring machine, averaging 1.90 goals per contest and with only one shutout on offense.
But similar to what Reed mentioned, Leigh noted the past experience against the Explorers’ top offensive tandem gives the Knights an idea of what they are going up against.
“We’ve played them multiple times before,” Leigh said. “So we know what to expect. They are [a good team]. They did really well in their conference this year, but we know what we’re capable of.”
Sneaking into the NCAA Tournament as an at-large bid and one of three teams from the Big Ten, Rutgers seeks to halt its offensive woes and reinvent itself with the new season upon it.
With the first NCAA Tournament home game at Yurcak Field since Nov. 16, 2008, which was a double-overtime win against Oklahoma State, O’Neill tried to put into words what makes this opportunity for his team so special.
“This is playoff soccer, man,” O’Neill said. “It’s the ice in your veins where you can make a mistake and still go out and play, you know what I mean? There’s something won or lost. And that’s playoffs — that’s living. That’s living, baby.”
For updates on the Rutgers women’s soccer team, follow @GarrettStepien and @TargumSports on Twitter.