Rutgers faces No. 16 Penn State as final stretch of regular season approaches
The Rutgers women’s soccer team looks to return to its winning ways in a high-profile matchup against No. 16 Penn State 7:30 p.m. Thursday night in Happy Valley, Pennsylvania.
The Nittany Lions have amassed a 9-2-3 record on the season and an impressive five wins, zero losses and two draws in conference play. Penn State currently sits atop the Big Ten standings with Northwestern, Minnesota, Michigan and then the Scarlet Knights close behind.
Although Rutgers also has earned a 9-2-3 mark this year, the Knights have one less win than Penn State in conference play. The team from New Brunswick has accrued only four wins in Big Ten action compared to one loss and two draws.
As a result, Rutgers owns 14 points while Penn State possesses 17, so if the Knights were to pull off the victory on Thursday, they would vault up to an equal position to the Nittany Lions.
Despite three recent disappointing outcomes, including a double-overtime loss at Michigan, a draw at home versus Illinois and a draw on the road at Indiana, Rutgers is within striking distance of the top of the standings.
Reaching that spot has been an aspiration for the Knights all season, especially for the veteran players who haven’t tasted a Big Ten championship.
“We have four conference games left and they’re all must-wins,” said senior captain Madison Tiernan. “Our goal from August has been to win a Big Ten title, and if we perform our best down this stretch, we could make that happen.”
There are several strategies the Knights have implemented throughout the 2016 campaign that have helped them concentrate on the task at hand.
Head coach Mike O’Neill and the rest of the staff have instilled in the players the idea they should only focus on the game right in front of them and not worry about conference records or standings.
“We only think about the next one, which right now is Penn State,” said junior forward Colby Ciarrocca. “No matter who we’re playing against, we’re always going for three points.”
The team traveled to Jeffrey Field in State College, Pennsylvania on Wednesday, and Rutgers has its eye on the prize and believes it can succeed against the menacing Penn State side.
Junior forward Frannie Crouse paces the Nittany Lions’ offense with nine goals on the season, which is tied for second in the entire Big Ten. Meanwhile, senior midfielder Nickolette Driesse leads Penn State in assists with six as she has been serving perfect passes all year.
But their offensive end isn’t just a two-pronged machine. Junior forward Megan Schafer and sophomore midfielder Charlotte Williams have added four and three goals respectively.
“They have a really good attack that poses a threat on the field,” said Rutgers associate head coach Meghan Ryan. “It’ll be a challenge to stop them, but I think it’s one that we’re capable of overcoming.
The Knights aren’t slouches either, as just this week, four players were listed to the TopDrawerSoccer.com Midseason Top 100.
Senior captain Erin Smith earned the highest rating of the bunch at No. 51 in the Women’s National Top 100 list. Smith has demonstrated skill and speed from the right back position in nearly every match and clearly viewers are taking notice.
Ciarrocca also made the player rankings at No. 92. She recorded five goals and three assists on the season with a shot on goal percentage of .595.
Freshmen Nicole Whitley and Amanda Visco made the Women’s Freshman Top 100 at Nos. 22 and 61 respectively. Whitley, a midfielder, leads the Big Ten in assists with nine, and Visco notched two goals from the position of center back.
“Having two defensive players as well as two offensive players on the lists shows our balance as a team,” Ryan said. “While we’re extremely happy for their accomplishments, their success is really a reflection on the chemistry of the team.”
In fact, the Rutgers players seem to always pick each other up and buy into the team-first mentality.
When one of the Knights’ normal stars isn’t getting the job done, the next person steps in and finds the solution.
“We always focus on what’s best for the team and that makes us better as a whole,” said Ciarrocca. “If we do that and play the way we’re capable, we’ll be fine against Penn State.”
For updates on the Rutgers women's soccer team, follow @TargumSports on Twitter.