After Miles Hackett scored his sixth goal of the season for the Rutgers men’s soccer team Friday night, Northwestern fans headed for the exits at Toyota Park.
The sophomore forward’s goal gave the Scarlet Knights a commanding 3-0 lead in the 60th minute of their matchup with the Wildcats. The contest appeared to be all but over.
But the tide quickly turned.
Two goals in the span of five minutes for the home side threatened the Knights’ seemingly comfortable lead.
Rutgers had responded well to Northwestern’s offensive pressure all afternoon, but the Knights’ back line made a pair of mistakes and the Wildcats were opportunistic.
“It was just us not clearing the ball like we should,” senior center back Mitch Lurie said of that five-minute period. “They just capitalized on their chances.”
With a little over 20 minutes remaining in the contest, Northwestern had plenty of time to equalize and perhaps even complete the unlikely comeback.
But just as it went all night, Rutgers was quick to respond.
Sophomore forward Jason Wright scored his Big Ten-leading 11th goal of the season — a minute after Elo Ozumba brought the Wildcats within one goal — to seal the Knights’ 4-2 win.
“It was huge,” head coach Dan Donigan said of Wright’s eighth goal in the past six games. “It was 3-2 with 15-20 minutes remaining on the road. (Northwestern) scored in their last two games in the last five minutes, so it certainly changes the momentum swing. (For) Jason to come down and get the goal he got, a very crucial (goal) to give us the two-goal cushion again — definitely big for us. He’s scored some big goals in big moments of the season so far and that one’s no different.”
Along with pushing Rutgers' current winning streak to four — the longest winning streak since 2011 — the victory provisionally puts Rutgers (8-4-1, 3-3) tied atop the Big Ten standings with Maryland, the final opponent of the regular season.
This is a recipe for great morale in the away locker room.
“Everyone’s just excited about the win,” said junior goalkeeper David Greczek. “We were able to be tied for first place right now in the Big Ten. As a team, coaching staff, everyone, we did a lot to get the result. There’s positive energy among the guys in the locker room now — there always was, but now it’s just more exemplified and it’s really great.”
Before Wright could be the hero of the evening for the Knights, Greczek beat him to it.
Roughly 15 minutes after senior center backs Drew Morgan and Mitch Lurie connected for a goal off of a corner kick for the second consecutive match to open the scoring in the fourth minute, Rutgers fouled a player on Northwestern (5-6-1, 2-3) in its penalty area.
Faced with the task of preserving his team’s lead, Greczek was not phased. The Fairfield, New Jersey, native dove to his right and saved Joey Calistri’s penalty shot.
The junior has been in the situation many times before and he’s learned to read the player on the other side of the ball.
“It’s just like any other PK. You just gotta look confident,” Greczek said. “There’s a little bit of luck to it, but you can tell by the body language before they hit the ball. Players do typical things that other players do when they take a (penalty) and it gets really repetitive … The way they set up kind of gives me an idea of which way to go and that time, I was right … I was able to make the save and keep us in the game.”
The save brought a boost of adrenaline to the boys from the Banks. Shortly after the stop, freshman forward Brian Hawkins doubled the Knights’ lead — along with his season-goal tally — and put away a rebound of a Wright shot spilled by Wildcats goalkeeper Zak Allen.
“I think that was a critical point in the game,” Greczek said. “(The penalty save) got the guys pumped up … and we just carried that momentum and we were able to get the second goal right after which was huge for us.”
The penalty save was the icing on the cake for Greczek, who made another four critical saves to keep his team in control of the match.
Asked to measure his outing to previous shifts he’s put in with the fluorescent colored goalkeeper jersey for Rutgers, he didn’t hesitate in answering but stressed that the final result is above any individual accolades.
“I think this season — the 2015 season — it was my best performance personally. Overall (for my career), I think it’s up there, definitely top-three,” Greczek said. “But it’s more about getting the result and the guys putting the ball in the back of the net. At the end of the day, winning cures everything. I was just happy that we won.”
With two conference matches remaining in the regular season, the Knights remain in the thick of the Big Ten conference standings.
A goal that seemed unlikely to be reached after starting the conference schedule 1-3 — or even when a potential collapse appeared to be brewing Friday night 12 miles outside of Chicago — Rutgers is confident it will be able to take home its first ever Big Ten regular season crown if it can maintain its current level of play for the rest of the season.
“I think anything’s up for grabs, so yeah, definitely,” Greczek said. “Unfortunately, we lost to three teams in the Big Ten, (but) we were able to beat three other teams, and now our toughest challenge is in front of us. If we stay consistent and we keep this positive movement going forward, then yeah, we can definitely have a good shot of winning the regular season conference. Like I said, the spirits are high in the locker room so everyone has their eyes on that title right now.”
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