Rutgers advances to second round of NCAA Tournament in dramatic fashion despite rough weather conditions
For the first 110 minutes of the NCAA Tournament first round match between the Rutgers men’s soccer team and LIU Brooklyn, the crowd at Yurcak Field was as loud as ever, despite the horrific weather conditions throughout the night.
But in the most crucial moment of the match, everything went silent.
Junior goalkeeper David Greczek stood on the goal line with a chance to send his team to the next round of the biggest tournament in collegiate soccer. The Scarlet Knights led 3-2 in a decisive penalty shootout after four shots from both teams. A save from Greczek would keep his team’s season alive.
Greczek’s two saves in the penalty shootout, including the game-winning stop of Raffi Gregorian’s penalty kick, propelled the Knights past the Blackbirds from Brooklyn to the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
The Fairfield, New Jersey, native was ecstatic with the win.
“Adrenaline kicks in when you’re making the save, but after that, it’s just a sigh of relief,” he said. “It’s a shame that it comes down to PK’s, but then you get the 'W' and it’s a sigh of relief and you just want to enjoy that 30 seconds you got after that, celebrate it with the fans, celebrate it with the team and just enjoy it.”
One-hundred and 10 minutes of action was not enough to separate the two sides.
While Rutgers controlled the match throughout extra-time, it was unable to score a golden goal to prevent the penalty shootout, but it came close.
It took a tremendous reflex save from Brooklyn goalkeeper Logan Keys to keep a Jason Wright header from point-blank range from ending the contest.
Prior to overtime, the Knights offensive woes were prevalent.
Trailing since the 32nd minute, Rutgers struggled to take advantage of the strong display it had in the second half. The Knights forced Keys into five saves off of 15 shots in the second half alone, but it seemed their season was destined to come to a close.
Until an unlikely hero saved the day for the home side.
Sophomore midfielder Ahmad Faheem scored his first career goal in the 76th minute to equalize the game for Rutgers.
The goal began with a cross from freshman midfielder Sheldon McKoy. Wright flicked the cross to Faheem and the Flower Mound, Texas, native slid the shot past LIU goalkeeper Logan Keys.
While he was happy to play a decisive role in such an important game, the midfielder believes he was just at the right place at the right time.
“It was a surreal moment. I really put in a lot of work and Coach finally gave me my opportunity and I’m glad I could repay the team,” Faheem said. “I’m really just a cog in the system, anyone could’ve scored the goal.”
The goal relieved the frustration for the Knights that was mounting with every missed opportunity. The conditions on the field was a big reason why the 15th best scoring offense in the nation took so long to open the scoring.
Yurcak Field resembled a slip-and-slide more than a soccer pitch. Rutgers battled against the elements after they put the Knights in a deficit.
The first goal of the contest came directly as a result of the conditions on the field. Rutgers was defending against the wind with its defensive half filled with a number of puddles of water due to the strong rainstorm falling in Piscataway.
A backpass intended for Greczek was stopped halfway to the goal, stuck in a puddle a few meters outside of the penalty area. Simen Hestnes, a freshman midfielder from Oslo, Norway, beat both senior center backs Mitch Lurie and Drew Morgan to the ball and rifled it into the bottom left corner of the goal past Greczek to open the scoring.
“The conditions were poor for sure. Everyone saw on the first goal, it was evident,” Greczek said. “A pass back stops in the puddle and they get their chance and they executed.”
The conditions on the pitch didn’t allow for either team to get into any rhythm in attack, every passing sequence being broken up by a pool of water or because the ball glided past the intended receiver after skipping on the grass.
Knowing they can’t control the weather, the coaching staff told their players how to play the hand they were dealt.
“You can get yourself in trouble by keeping it on the ground (in those conditions) so we told them ‘try to play balls in the air as much as possible,” said head coach Dan Donigan. “It’s not the way we coach, it’s not the way we want to play, but quite honestly, in these conditions, you gotta do what you gotta do.”
Despite the heavy rain and strong winds, Rutgers survived and advanced in the tournament. But getting the win to guarantee a meeting with fourth-seeded Akron Sunday was the only thing that mattered to Greczek, as he stood on the sideline after the game squeezing the water out of his gloves, soaking in the win.
“Yeah, the conditions were poor, but we managed. It was the same thing for them and same thing for us,” the Second Team All-Big Ten selection said. “At the end of the day, we got the win and that’s all I care about.”
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