Rutgers rides momentum into final road trip of season
With one more regular season game to go before the Big Ten Tournament, the Rutgers women’s soccer team is remaining focused on the task at hand for the week — finishing the season strong at Iowa.
The No. 9 Scarlet Knights (13-2-2, 6-2-2) are playing their best soccer of the season, picking up crucial conference victories over ranked foes in then-No. 9 Penn State and then-No. 19 Minnesota.
They have put themselves in position to host a Big Ten Tournament game at home after their recent string of strong play has them tied with Michigan for third in the conference with 20 points.
They also just completed their third unbeaten season at home in school history, posting a 9-0-1 record at Yurcak Field.
Rutgers would love to be able to host a conference tournament game at home, but understands that it cannot overlook a Hawkeyes team (7-9-1, 1-8-1) that has beaten Illinois this season, one of the two teams to hand the Knights a loss this fall.
“Winning at home this year was very important to us and one of the biggest goals set out by the team at the start of the season,” said head coach Mike O’Neill. “The team recognizes that, if you win at home, it can be a great year. But they also recognize the importance of winning on the road, so that is why this trip to Iowa could not come at a better time. It gives us a chance to get a win against a good team on the road.”
With their recent offensive prowess on display against tough defensive teams, coupled with the customary stout defense the Knights have played with all season, they are playing well in both phases of the game at the right time in the season.
Their defense has been led by players like senior defenders Brianne Reed and Erica Skroski, who have helped anchor the back line in front of sophomore goalkeeper Casey Murphy.
Murphy and the defense lead the nation in goals-against average (0.29) and are second-best in shutout percentage (0.765).
Individually, Murphy is third-best in the country in save percentage (.915), and her and the team’s 13 shutouts on the season are tied for the nation’s lead — three away from the 2006 school record.
Their offense has caught up in recent games, with sophomore forward Colby Ciarrocca scoring in three consecutive matches and junior defender Erin Smith providing a goal and assist against Minnesota.
The whole team seems to be in rhythm, which is a welcoming sign with the postseason just around the corner.
“It’s great to be a part of this team with how we are playing right now,” Smith said. “We just have to focus on the next game and make sure we are all in on it as a team, because we know it’s not about individuals. We have to play as a team and if we do that, we can get it done.”
The coaches love the mentality that Smith and her veteran teammates have exuded.
They have emphasized the depth and leadership of their roster all season long, and the veterans and newcomers are meshing at their best during such a critical time.
“The team recognizes that every day they can get better and better, which is all you can ask for as a coach,” O’Neill said.
Junior forward Jessica Puchalski notched her first goal of the season in Friday night’s 3-1 Blackout victory over Minnesota.
She was a part of last season’s team that was upset and shutout by Iowa in the Big Ten Tournament, and is looking forward to a chance for revenge along with her teammates.
“Our goal from the start of the season was to try to get a good enough seed to play a home game for the Big Ten Tournament, and we now have a chance to do it,” Puchalski said. “We’re almost there but know we have to play well against a tough Iowa team.”
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