Conference awards highlight progress for Rutgers
Around this time last year, members of Rutgers men’s soccer team had already taken off their cleats for the final time.
The eighth-seeded Scarlet Knights suffered a 2-0 defeat to top seed Maryland in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten Tournament to end their 2014 season. The scoreline did not reflect how much better the Terrapins were than their visitors.
The Knights never really had a chance in College Park. After finishing the regular season in second-to-last place in the conference standings with a record of 5-11-1 and a 1-6-1 mark in Big Ten competition, Rutgers was not expected to surpass Maryland.
Today, the Knights prepare to face another top seed in the Big Ten Tournament this weekend. But this time it will be in the semifinal round of the conference tournament and Rutgers is not as big an underdog as it was last season.
The Knights finished the regular season in fourth place in the Big Ten with an overall record of 11-5-1 and a 4-4-0 mark in conference matches. But while it finished in the middle of the pack — already a large improvement from last season’s finish — Rutgers was fighting for the regular season title and top tournament seed on the final match day before ultimately falling to eventual third seed Maryland, 2-0.
The improvement in the program is evident to anyone who paid attention to Big Ten men’s soccer and a large portion of the credit belongs to the one who helped turn things around for the Knights — head coach Dan Donigan.
The sixth-year head coach was rewarded for his efforts by his fellow coaches when he was named the Big Ten Coach of the Year last weekend prior to the start of the conference tournament.
Proud of earning the recognition, Donigan chooses to credit the program as a whole for this season's success.
“It’s awesome. I’m very, very proud of it,” he said of his award. “I’m honored to get it, especially within the group of coaches and the programs that are in this conference … to be looked upon as having done a good job within the conference this year, it makes me feel very good. But at the end of the day, it’s what my players have done for us on the field and the work that all of us put in … for me, it’s a program award, it’s not so much me.”
Donigan got some help from the players he put out on the field.
Sophomore forward Jason Wright, who had a sensational freshman year recognized with a spot in the Big Ten’s All-Freshman team last season, had an even more spectacular sophomore season distinguished when he was named Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year and a unanimous First Team All-Big Ten selection.
Wright, who had been named Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week four times this season, finished the 2015 campaign atop the Big Ten goalscoring list with 13 goals to his credit, an improvement on his already impressive 10-goal tally from last year.
Like his head coach, Wright is happy to receive the award but makes sure to mention he wasn’t the only one honored by the conference.
“It’s a great accomplishment, personally,” Wright said. “A lot of the guys got several awards too, so a lot of the team got recognition that we thoroughly deserve and I think it’s work in progress going forward, so we’re just grateful for the recognition.”
Three of the teammates Wright mentions — senior midfielder Mitchell Taintor, senior center back Mitchell Lurie and junior goalkeeper David Greczek — were also recognized by the conference, as Second Team All-Big Ten selections.
The pattern of collective praise continued with Taintor, who chose to make the award a team accomplishment.
“It’s great. It’s always good to get recognition,” Taintor said. “It brings recognition to the team, too, and obviously it wasn’t a one-man job, so it’s everyone’s award really.”
Donigan preached the importance of his goalkeeper, center back, center midfielder and forward all season, so naturally he was pleased to see the pillars of his team match up with the conference’s elite.
With each section of the field playing well and doing its job, Rutgers was able to improve vastly from last season, winning the most games in a season since 2003 when it notched an 11-7-4 overall mark.
“Those guys have worked very hard, they’ve all come a very long way,” Donigan said. “David (Greczek) has been unbelievable in goal for us ... Lurie has obviously been a godsend to this program with the culture, the mindset, the mentality he’s implemented into our locker room, into our training every day. Taintor has been by me for the last four years and has never waivered with his loyalty even though we’ve been through some very difficult times."
He continued by giving praise to Wright, the one player who joined him with conference honors for this season.
"Wright is just a special player that we were very fortunate to go down to Jamaica and find," Donigan said. "… All four of these guys (Greczek, Lurie, Taintor and Wright) are future professionals in my opinion, but they gotta continue to work, they gotta continue to develop and get better every day, every game.”
The nucleus of Rutgers remained nearly the same from last season, but the few additions that saw significant playing time were crucial in the Knights' season.
In addition to Lurie, whose partnership with Drew Morgan in middle of the defense played a key role in Rutgers’ eight clean sheets, freshman forward Brian Hawkins added to the team’s depth in the offensive third, scoring two goals and assisting another three.
Hawkins was named to the Big Ten’s All-Freshman team for his efforts this season, following in Wright’s footsteps to become the second Knight to earn the distinction.
“He easily could’ve started every game and played 90 minutes every game, but we’re deep enough to where we can rotate guys in," Donigan said. "Hawkins easily is a starter on all those (Big Ten) programs, if not all programs in the country, in my opinion. But he’s come on as a reserve because we know he’s a kid that’s going to accept that position and excel in that role. He’s done it and that’s why we like him so much. He’s a phenomenal kid, a phenomenal player and he’s gonna do some really good things for us in his time here.”
Seeing the progress the program has made in just one year is a gratifying experience for the Knights.
With the worries of not being able to compete against the elite teams in the Big Ten a thing of the past — at least for this season — Rutgers' next obstacle on the way to a Big Ten Tournament title is top-seed Ohio State, who the Knights defeated, 1-0, earlier in the season.
While individual awards and recognition are good for morale, nothing is done without the collective.
And it is with the collective that Rutgers hopes to take home a prize worth than all the individual awards combined.
“I’m happy for those guys. I think it all makes sense to us from what are philosophies are," Donigan said. "But I know those guys would trade in those awards in a heartbeat to get a conference tournament title."
For updates on the Rutgers men’s soccer team, follow @briannnnf and @TargumSports on Twitter.