Midseason spark changes direction of season for Rutgers
When the final whistle blew at Yurcak Field to signal the end of the match between the Rutgers men’s soccer team and budding Big Ten rival Penn State on Oct. 3, the home side collectively fell to the floor in physical and mental exhaustion.
The Nittany Lions defeated the Scarlet Knights, 2-0, after a near three-hour power outage caused the match to finish deep into the night. The defeat put the Knights at 4-4-1 on the season and 1-3-0 in conference play with the most difficult stretch of the season yet to come.
They appeared to be going down a similar road to their inaugural season in the Big Ten, where they finished penultimate in the standings (6-12-1, 1-6-1).
But Rutgers continued to believe even when things were not going its way. It felt its record was not indicative to how well it had been playing until that point and that things were going to turn around.
“These guys are very head strong right now. They know they’re good,” said head coach Dan Donigan following the match against Penn State. “They’re playing with great confidence ... I think our day is very close to coming here ... I’m very confident in my team that we can win the remaining games, there’s no question about it. They just deserve better.”
Now, it’s safe to say their day has come.
The Knights have rallied off seven consecutive wins since that night, climbing the Big Ten table and the national rankings along the way.
Rutgers won multiple games it was not expected to win throughout the streak, twice defeating the Big Ten leaders at the time of kick-off.
First, the Knights traveled to Ann Arbor and defeated then-No. 25 Michigan, 1-0, with a golden goal scored by sophomore forward Jason Wright in the opening minutes of extra-time.
The Big Ten’s top goalscorer came up big again the next time Rutgers faced a league-leading team. In the biggest match since the Knights joined the Big Ten conference last season, Wright scored the only goal in a 1-0 upset of then-No. 18 Ohio State to isolate his team atop the Big Ten standings for the first time in program history.
While the Buckeyes controlled most of the possession in the match, the Knights felt like they held the advantage.
“Even though it was only 1-0 against Ohio State, we felt like the better team for sure throughout the entire game,” said junior midfielder Erik Sa.
Ranked 21st in the nation according to the NSCAA Coach’s Poll released on Oct. 27, Rutgers went from dead last in the Big Ten to contending for its first regular season conference title in just one month.
The Knights have outscored their opponents, 16-4, throughout the streak, shutting out the opposition five times in the seven matches.
The five clean sheets come as a surprise to anyone who followed Rutgers in the early part of its season, when it held just one clean sheet in the first 10 matches of the 2015 campaign.
The back line took some time to become used to playing with each other, but once they clicked and stopped committing silly errors, they created a brick wall in front of junior goalkeeper David Greczek.
“It’s been a lot about focus and working together and not making the small mistakes. A lot of the goals we’ve given up have been from small, dumb mistakes,” said senior center back Drew Morgan. “We’ve just been focused on (playing) 90 minutes and not letting up those small couple of minutes where we’d mess up … we’re just making sure we’re focused the whole game and working off each other and if we do mess up, we try just to pick it up and not let it keep going on and on.”
On the other end of the pitch, Wright has been terrorizing opponent’s backlines. The three-time Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week has scored 13 goals this season, surpassing his mark of 10 from his phenomenal freshman season on the Banks.
Currently tied for third in the nation in goals, Wright scored in the first six matches of his team’s current winning streak, missing the mark only in Rutgers’ latest win over Nebraska-Omaha.
When the Knights travel to College Park to face Maryland on Wednesday in a match that will play a big role in determining how things finish in the Big Ten regular season with seeding for the conference tournament nearing, the Kingston, Jamaica, native hopes to get back on the scoresheet and keep the streak alive.
“I always try to continue scoring,” Wright said. “Scoring is the biggest part of my game, so as long as I’m scoring, I’ll be happy and even more so if my team gets a win, that’s the biggest part of our season. We need to continue that winning streak and for me, winning is the most important thing.”
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