Rutgers looks for Big Ten win during home stand
As the most decisive part of the season is underway, the Rutgers field hockey team has nothing left to lose.
In search of their first conference win this year, the Scarlet Knights (6-7, 0-5) will host two Big Ten opponents in their final home stand of the season, taking on Penn State (5-8, 1-3) on Friday before a Senior Day matchup with No. 7 Maryland (12-3, 5-0) on Sunday.
Rutgers’ position in post-season conference play will ultimately be determined this weekend at Bauer Track/Field Hockey Complex.
After leading the Big Ten in goals scored per game throughout the first half of the season, the Knights slipped into a mid-season slump, dropping five of their last six games.
With the hopes of digging themselves out of this rut, Rutgers has been productive in preparing both mentally and physically for this critical weekend. At the foundation of these efforts is on-field chemistry.
“I think the focus is just gonna be on our game … Just hard but smart work. I think sometimes we are working hard, and the effort’s there but we’re not necessarily making smart decisions on the field,” said senior captain Ali Stever. “The past few games we’ve been struggling to find a good connection or a flow throughout the game so I think (we need to) really just come out, take control … take it one minute at a time and make sure things go our way.”
The Knights return to the Banks after back-to-back weekend road trips. In the latest of the two, Rutgers was shutout by conference foe Ohio State before taking a 7-1 loss at the hands of Miami (Ohio).
Leaving the Buckeye State dissatisfied and frustrated, the uphill battle became steeper and the pressure greater as post-season play looms near. It is pivotal that the Knights execute this weekend to solidify a standing in the Big Ten Tournament.
“We, really, honestly have nothing to lose. I think there’s a lot pressure on this team and on these guys — and most of it is self-inflicted — to perform and to win and do well,” said head coach Meredith Civico. “As a group, they want it really badly and almost sometimes too badly, and we saw that at Ohio State. You know, we can beat a team like Ohio State … We were just so tight, and I think we got a little bit overcome by pressure to perform and pressure to win.”
Though the weight in these games is substantial, composure will play an integral part in the outcomes Rutgers yields this weekend.
Poise for the Knights starts with a resilient mental game that translate into on-field performances.
“We’ve been, really, just trying to get these guys to play free … get the weight off your shoulders and just worry about us and worry about what we do and worry about getting better as a team,” Civico said. “That’s what we can control, and that’s what we’ve got to focus on. ... We can control the details in what we do, and if we do those things well, we should get the win."
No conference success comes unearned, particularly in the Big Ten. But victory for Rutgers this weekend is by no means out of reach.
The Nittany Lions leave Happy Valley on a three-game shutout losing skid. Penn State sits only one spot above the Knights in conference standings with a lone Big Ten win on the season.
Boasting a turbulent and inconsistent season similar to the one Rutgers has had so far, the Nittany Lions should pose an evenly matched challenge to the Knights.
Though the pressure is momentous, the team is maintaining a strong mindset that focuses on doing what they need to on the field.
“I think mentally we’re not psyching ourselves out. We know what needs to be done and we’re just gonna go in and do it,” said junior defender Sophia Walia. “There’s not really much we can say to ourselves — I think everybody knows deep down the importance of the game, and I think that just not letting the pressure get to us is going to be key and knowing that this is our time.”
After Friday’s matchup, Rutgers will take on conference powerhouse Maryland. In their final home game of the regular season, the Knights will celebrate Senior Day and honor the squad of Stever, Katie Champion, Carley Hawkins and Nicole Imbriaco.
As it looks to take its first victory against Maryland since 1998, Rutgers will have to leave it all on the field. The Terrapins currently sit atop the Big Ten standings with an undefeated record in conference play and hold a top-10 spot in national rankings at No. 7.
Facing one of the top teams in the country will be a true test for the Knights. But no team — the Terps included — is perfect.
Of Maryland’s three losses on the season, two come from teams ranked below them in the national standings. Rutgers looks to join Boston College and Albany as one of the few lower-ranked programs to hand the Terps a loss this season.
Numbers are never the end-all and are rarely accurate indicators of game outcomes. Knowing this, the Knights are not giving too much thought to the statistics surrounding their upcoming matchup.
“Obviously, we’re all aware of it, but we truly believe that anything can happen,” Stever said of Maryland’s high standing. “It really comes down to who comes out to play that day and I think, as a team, we really believe that if we perform our best, there’s no reason why we cant beat an opponent despite their rankings.”
Eight of the nine teams in the Big Ten will qualify for conference post-season play. As of right now, Rutgers falls at the bottom of the standings behind Penn State and Iowa, which are both tied with a 1-3 conference record.
With only three Big Ten games left on their regular season schedule, the Knights will have to take advantage of their final fleeting opportunities to climb the conference ladder.
“I think this will be a very important win not just for our conference, but also for our program and our build. I think that if we can come out with a win, we have another one to get soon after so we can’t lose focus,” Walia said. “We’re in a tough position right now in terms of conference and we do need to win two games out of three so I think if we can start by this game then hopefully we’ll keep building off the momentum.”
It will be a quintessential weekend for the Knights, but they enter it armed with an awareness of what is at stake, what needs to be done and how to attain the results.
Rutgers is confident that at the end of the day, the scoreboard will reflect the quality in execution on these next vital opportunities.
“I think that’s what we’re focusing on — the controllables — and just getting after Penn State,” Civico said. “It’s gonna be a dog fight, and that’s what I expect so we’ve got to play hard, we’ve got to play smart and we’ve got to play tough together … Every chance is gonna count both ways.”
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