Rutgers returns to NCAA Tournament for first time since 2011
When the Rutgers men’s soccer team fell, 4-0, to Ohio State Friday in the semifinals of the Big Ten Tournament, the guaranteed portion of its schedule came to a close.
For the past four seasons, the end of the conference tournament — whether it be the Big East, the American Athletic Conference or the Big Ten — marked the end of the season for the Scarlet Knights, who have failed to take part in the NCAA Tournament since their run to the quarterfinals in 2011.
But this year was different.
A successful season from the Knights (12-6-1, 4-4-0) made the NCAA Selection Show on Monday afternoon must-watch television for all involved with the program. Every player who was free at the time of the show — head coach Dan Donigan would not allow his players to skip class for the show — gathered at the Brown Football Recruiting Pavilion and Welcome Center to watch the 48-team field be unveiled.
The first team to hear its name was No. 1 overall seed Wake Forest of the Atlantic Coast Conference. Multiple teams — including Big Ten foes Indiana and Ohio State — were announced, and Rutgers had yet to be one of them.
While many players spoke with confidence prior to the show, anxiety was sensed in the room among the players, as nothing was guaranteed for the Knights. Though they had a much better season than their inaugural season in the Big Ten, they still needed to be given an at-large bid to participate in the tournament.
Once Rutgers was displayed on the bracket, the room erupted with cheer.
“I mean, there always is a little bit (of nervousness), (but) I think we knew,” said senior center back Mitchell Lurie. “I think we all deep down knew we did what we needed to do in order to get in and the committee obviously agreed, which is good.”
The Knights will host LIU Brooklyn in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Thursday, making their first appearance in the competition since Donigan’s second year at the helm.
After a tumultuous season in which his team finished second last in the Big Ten, the big turnaround is reason to be happy for the sixth-year head coach, but Donigan is happier for his players than he is for himself. With the slate wiped clean, he believes anything could happen.
“It’s exciting. I’m more happy for the guys to be honest with you because we haven’t been in the tournament in the last couple of years,” he said. “It’s nice to be back in, and it just refreshes you. It reenergizes you. Everybody’s 0-0 and anyone can win at this point. There’s 48 quality teams in this tournament right now.”
Reaching the tournament is an accomplishment in itself for Rutgers, so being able to host the first round is the cherry on top.
“It’s awesome,” said senior midfielder Mitchell Taintor. “To make the tournament and host too obviously gives you a little bit of an advantage, and so I think we need to take advantage of the advantage of it being home and propel ourselves into the next round.”
In addition to the advantage it will provide the Knights on the pitch, playing at Yurcak can serve as closure for the seniors on the team.
If Rutgers defeats LIU Brooklyn Thursday, it would advance to the quarterfinals of the tournament, where it would face fourth-seeded Akron. In order to play another game in Piscataway, the Knights would need to upset the Zips and hope either SMU or Utah Valley upset Denver in the quarterfinals, and even then, it’s unclear who would host.
Playing in front of the scarlet faithful that the players have praised throughout the season could add even more incentive for Rutgers to give everything it has.
“It’s nice to be able to play in front of our fans again,” Donigan said. “For the seniors, this could potentially be their last game ever on our field in front of our fans on our campus so it’s a little extra motivation, so i’m excited for the guys.”
With only six games in between the Knights and a national championship, there is a chance for them to make their furthest run in the competition since 1994, when Rutgers finished national runners-up with All-American Pedro Lopes leading the Knights.
A first national title in program history is the ultimate goal for Rutgers. But before thinking about the pinnacle of collegiate soccer, the Knights will first focus on the Blackbirds that stand in their way as they fight for their season to continue.
“The goal is a trophy, but you gotta take it one game at a time,” Lurie said. “Every game, you gotta be 1-0 and now we’re literally playing for our lives. There’s no next game. Now we’re playing for the year. If you lose, you’re done, so every game is the most important.”
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