No. 18 Rutgers eyes spot in Big Ten Tournament final, faces No. 12 OSU in semis
There’s a first time for everything.
The No. 18 Rutgers men’s soccer team experiences its first taste of Big Ten Tournament's latter stages Friday when it travels to Columbus for the semifinals to face the conference tournament's top seed in No. 12 Ohio State.
Competing against elite opposition all throughout the regular season, the quality of the team on the other side of the field is nothing new for the boys from the Banks.
“It’s a very big challenge, but everybody in this conference is a very big challenge, top to bottom, from Michigan State, who lost in the play-in game, to Ohio State, who’s the number one seed,” said head coach Dan Donigan. “If you’re not ready in all facets, you’re going to lose. It’s going to be a tactical affair, it’s going to be a physical affair, it’s going to be high energy.”
The match will make it the second time both sides meet in 2015.
The Scarlet Knights (12-5-1, 4-4-0) made etched their names in the record books when they defeated the Buckeyes (12-5-2, 5-2-1) earlier in the season, 1-0, to take sole possession of first place in the Big Ten regular season standings for the first time in program history.
But the win came at Yurcak Field, a venue the Knights are familiar with, in front of fans cheering for them.
Friday’s match will take place at Jesse Owens Memorial Stadium, where the Buckeyes have gone 9-1-1 this season. The only loss Ohio State suffered in Columbus this year came in the second game of the season against Binghamton on Aug. 30.
With an average of 1,071 fans turning out every match, the Buckeyes have nearly twice as many fans per game as Rutgers. But once the ball is kicked off, none of that will make a difference to the players the fans pay to watch.
“I really don’t,” Donigan said on whether he thinks playing away will make a difference. “I think we cross those white lines and that whistle blows and we’re matched up against a team we’ve already played and a team we’re fortunate to have already beat and gotten three points from, there’s no nerves at that point. It’s just all adrenaline and emotions and at that point, you feed off of what you’ve already accomplished this whole season.”
The last time the Knights went on the road, their five-game winning streak in games outside of Piscataway was snapped in College Park in a 2-0 loss to Maryland.
In order to achieve the same success they had against Ohio State the first time around, they’ll have to shake off the loss to the Terrapins and play the way they have all season.
“Hopefully we can get the same result, but we just gotta take it day-by-day and when we get to the game, we’ll have to focus in and play to our ability unlike what we did at Maryland,” said senior midfielder Mitchell Taintor.
Sophomore forward Jason Wright, the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year, doesn’t even want to address all the factors that could affect his team negatively, choosing rather to look on the bright side.
“The only factor (we take into account) is going to play something positive, in the sense that the program hasn’t been in this spot in a long time and we’re all excited for the progress that the program has made,” he said. “It’s a semifinal, it’s a big contest and I think we’re ready for it.”
The fourth-seeded Knights reached the penultimate stage of the Big Ten Tournament by defeating fifth seed Northwestern 2-0 in the quarterfinals last Sunday. The Buckeyes, meanwhile, squeezed by eighth seed Penn State, 1-0, in extra-time to get to this point in the competition.
If Rutgers defeats Ohio State and advances to the Big Ten Tournament final, it will await the winner of the other semifinal between second seed Indiana and third seed Maryland.
While not looking too far ahead and choosing to focus on the current obstacle in his team’s way, Donigan has endless confidence in his troops. He believes they can win the whole competition regardless of who they face in the final.
“Absolutely, no question,” he said on whether winning the tournament is the goal. “What would be the point of going out there if we didn’t? … We all want to win this postseason, not just for the automatic qualifier, but just for the right to say we won the postseason tournament in one of the best conferences in the country. That’s what we set out for every year and to be this close, it’s that much more exciting for us.”
For updates on the Rutgers men’s soccer team, follow @briannnnf and @TargumSports on Twitter.