Rutgers ignores outside perception, sets high goals for season
When a team is voted to finish last in a preseason poll, it is usually as a result of it not having the talent to compete with the upper echelon programs in the conference.
But the Rutgers men’s lacrosse team — picked to finish in the sixth and final spot in the Big Ten’s preseason poll — doesn’t fit the bill of your normal basement dweller.
Although the Scarlet Knights finished with a 1-4 record in Big Ten play and a 5-10 record overall in their inaugural season in the conference, they weren’t too far from finishing with the inverse of their final win-loss tally.
Three of the Knights’ four losses in conference came by two goals — including a late 9-8 loss to then-No. 3 Maryland and a 9-7 loss to then-No. 19 Johns Hopkins — with half of their out-of-conference losses coming by two points or less.
Rutgers was finally able to break through and earn a monumental win in their final game of the season, a 17-10 win over then-No. 10 Ohio State for the program’s first Big Ten win.
With all that being done with a relatively young team, the Knights believe returning eight starters with another year of experience under their belts is a formula that can turn those tough, close losses into wins.
While their focus will be on the next opponent up on their schedule, the end goal for the team slotted last in the conference’s preseason poll is a Big Ten Championship, according to senior attacker Scott Bieda.
“I know that we’re better than that and we don’t care if people think that we’re supposed to be six and that doesn’t really matter to us,” Bieda said. “Those people in that locker room right there, we believe that we should be way higher (but) we don’t need to be ranked higher. We know it when the game time comes and we put the lights on that we’re gonna be a lot higher by the end of the year.”
If Rutgers winds up making noise in 2016, it will most likely coincide with its offense — specifically Scott Bieda — having yet another strong season. The four-year starter powered the Knights’ second-ranked offense in the Big Ten.
Bieda was the team’s leading point scorer last season while piling up 30 goals and 28 assists on his way to being named to the First Team All-Big Ten list.
Entering this season, the Bridgewater, New Jersey, native was named as the Knights’ only full-season captain.
Along with Bieda, the next two top point and goal scorers from 2015 return to the lineup this year. Junior Christian Trasolini, 26 goals, and sophomore Jules Heningburg, 21 goals, team with Bieda to create a formidable attack for Rutgers.
On defense, the Knights retain five of its six starters, looking to improve on a unit that ranked 35th in the nation in scoring defense last year.
Senior long-stick midfielder Zack Sikora returns to anchor the middle of the field fresh off an All-Big Ten Honorable Mention.
Head coach Brian Brecht said he felt confident in each position to be able to compete against top competition.
One of Rutgers’ biggest losses comes in the face-off circle where graduating senior Joe Nardella went up for 333 of the Knights’ 363 face-offs in 2015, winning 67 percent of them and leading Rutgers to the fifth-best draw percentage in the nation.
But Brecht said that he’s not worried about how the Knights will fare in the circle without the All-American and has confidence in sophomore forward Joe Francisco and sophomore forward Alex Schoen to step up on draws.
“I’m excited for another big step in our growth and it’s not because of what conference we’re in,” Brecht said. “It’s because of the level of play on the field and the individuals that are in the locker room. So we played a lot of young guys last year, we are still young … We’re a year older, I think we’re a year better with our experience, but our experience is still young with some of the guys that are gonna be on the field hopefully making big plays for us.”
Rutgers start things off Friday afternoon with a 3 p.m. showdown against St. Johns at High Point Solutions Stadiums. The game was originally scheduled for Saturday, but with frigid temperatures expected to be present in Piscataway, the game to be moved one day earlier.
“Definitely really excited, I’ve been looking forward to it for a long time,” Sikora said. “Since the end of last year, after getting that big win (against Ohio State), I knew this year was gonna be a big year for us and that we could really start this season off well and make this year a big year for Rutgers lacrosse as a whole.”