No. 9 Rutgers awaits end of week No. 1 Virginia
Playing at your best at the most crucial time of the year — the postseason — is what coaches aim for in most sports.
The preseason is used to begin preparations for the regular season slate. If there is success during that time, then the postseason becomes a possibility.
The No. 9 Rutgers women’s soccer team followed that formula to a tee.
The Scarlet Knights (18-3-2, 7-2-2) were certainly a strong team throughout the regular season, as evidenced by their success in the Big Ten Conference and unbeaten record on their home turf at Yurcak Field.
But they have played their best soccer of the season through the first three games of the NCAA Tournament, giving them hope as they prepare to take on No. 1 Virginia in the quarter-finals set for Friday.
“The culture that has been created here is one of honesty,” said head coach Mike O’Neill. “They come out every day and check themselves before every practice to raise their level, and that’s what they do. It’s a long season with a lot of games, but they keep each other accountable. Coaches keep good teams accountable, but players keep great teams accountable, and that’s what they’ve done since day one.”
After they felt like they didn’t play their best in their first round victory over Fairleigh Dickinson, the Knights responded with two of their most impressive victories of the season in the second and third rounds.
They defeated a tough Hofstra team 2-0 behind an own goal from the visitors before senior defender Brianne Reed added a score to put the contest out of reach.
It was then a quick turnaround in the Sweet 16 match on Sunday, in which Rutgers throttled UConn, which had been ranked all season, beating the No. 18 Huskies for the second time this year, and this time by a 4-0 score.
It was just the second time the Knights scored four goals in a game, but it added to their shutout record with clean sheet number 18 on the season.
Sophomore goalkeeper Casey Murphy pitched another shutout in the victory, finishing with seven saves. The Big Ten Goalkeeper of the Year is a big component of how Rutgers likes to play, but she credits her teammates for helping her with the shutouts.
“Just the experience of Bri (Reed) and (senior defender) Erica Skroski, I think they work so well together,” she said. “They help guide the newer players on the outside, and I just feel so much more confident having them in front of me. It makes me a better player and the team a better team, and I’m just really happy with the backline and how he hold each other accountable."
Most significant for the Knights is that they are now blending their stout defense with some firepower on offense, a recipe for success during tournament time.
They felt they put together one of their stronger performances of the season against Connecticut, hoping to now take the lessons from that game into their matchup with the Virginia, who just defeated No. 11 USC to advance to the Elite Eight.
The Knights faced off with the Cavaliers in the second round of last year's NCAA Tournament, holding a scoreless tie at halftime before Virginia pulled away with a 3-0 explosion to knock Rutgers out.
“It felt really good on the field and we felt like we were moving the ball well,” said senior forward Cassie Inacio, who scored one of the four goals in the game. “We were able to finish on our opportunities and our backline and defensive players were strong. It felt good to get some momentum.”
Rutgers knows that the tournament gets harder with each round, but the Knights aren’t a group that gets intimidated by their opponent.
They navigated a challenging regular season schedule and beat numerous ranked teams throughout the season by being attentive to their own goals and habits, planning to take that same mindset down to Charlottesville for the Elite Eight.
With a spot in the 2015 NCAA Women’s College Cup on the line, Rutgers hopes to maintain their singular focus which has bred success during its historic season.
“The whole season we’ve tried to keep the focus on us, and not who we’re playing,” Inacio said. “We want to focus on us and our habits and working hard, and whoever we play, it doesn’t matter because we are going to give it our best effort and play the way we know how to play.”
For updates on the Rutgers women’s soccer team, follow @Mike_OSully2 and @TargumSports on Twitter.