First conference win shows steady improvement for Rutgers
If at first you don’t succeed, try and try again.
Members of the Rutgers volleyball team have had that old adage ingrained in their heads ever since joining the Big Ten Conference.
The Scarlet Knights struggled mightily against conference opponents since the University joined the prestigious conference in 2014. They had 20 chances to earn a Big Ten win in their first season, but all 20 times, they failed — and most of the time, it wasn’t even close.
In 20 best-of-three showdowns against their new yearly opponents, the Knights were swept, 3-0, 16 times. Rutgers came within a set of taking its first match only twice, both times against Maryland.
Fast-forward to 2015 and the trend continued as the Knights dropped their first eight conference matches of the season, six of them in 3-set sweeps.
But the slow start didn’t kill Rutgers’ hope in getting its first Big Ten win.
The ninth conference game of the season was against the Terrapins at home. In a conference of historic, elite college volleyball programs, Maryland was the Knights' best chance to achieve their goal.
And they were well aware of it.
“We see Maryland as our biggest rival,” senior defensive specialist Ali Schroeter said before the match. “We're both kind of equal as far as our talent, and I guess schedule as far as our wins and losses.”
Knowing it was by far the most winnable game in their schedule, the excitement for the game built up with each passing day. With six seniors on the team, the team was motivated to leave its mark on the program.
“I don’t want to end my senior year without getting the first Big Ten win,” Schroeter said. “I want to be a part of the team that does that, so that’s why I’m really excited for this and really pushing for it. If I were to leave my senior year without getting my first Big Ten win, I’d be kind of upset.”
A back-and-forth affair, the match between the two bottom teams in the Big Ten was a thrilling one.
Rutgers won the first set of the contest, 25-23, but Maryland responded by winning the second one by the same score.
After two intense sets to open the match, the Knights took the third stanza with some breathing room, winning 25-19. Despite having momentum on its side, Rutgers dropped the fourth set as the Terps took it handily, 25-15.
A final set up to 15 would determine if the Knights would capitalize on their chance to make history.
The first nine points of the set suggested their dreams would be crushed as Maryland shot out to an early 7-2 lead, but Rutgers then went on a 7-2 run of its own to knot the score at 9 apiece.
The teams split the next four points and the decisive set went into an 11-11 tie. But Rutgers then took four of the final five points to bring everyone in scarlet and white into a frenzy.
“Even before the locker room, on the way down, people were starting to cry, everyone was so excited," sophomore outside hitter Meme Fletcher said after the historic win. "I’ve never seen emotion like that out of some people and even myself. I started balling — it just hit me."
The Knights went on to lose their final 11 conference matchups — including the next game three days later in College Park against the Terrapins — but the win on Oct. 21 already brought marginal improvement from 2014.
With Rutgers trending upwards, the Knights look to win multiple conference games on its way to slowly improving.
The Knights have hope for brighter days as they gain more experience in the Big Ten.
While they’re down now, just like in the final set of the historic game at the Barn, it doesn’t mean they’re out.
“Even if we're down, it doesn’t mean we can’t come back," Fletcher said, "and that’s exactly what we did tonight."