Rutgers concludes year without Big Ten win after dropping both matches in final weekend of season
With the 28th consecutive loss in the books and the season wrapped, it doesn’t look like the Rutgers volleyball team has much to give thanks for.
The Scarlet Knights (4-29, 0-20) closed the campaign over Thanksgiving weekend with two losses to Illinois (17-14, 10-10) and Northwestern (10-22, 3-17), rounding out 2016 with 28 consecutive defeats.
The Knights welcomed each side to the College Avenue Gym in hopes of not only halting a program record losing streak but also garnering their first conference win of the season.
Having not won since defeating Iona at the Yale Invitational in the first week of September, Rutgers trembled into the weekend squaring off against a side in the middle of the pack in the Big Ten and one just above Knights in the standings.
The former was the Fighting Illini, and they traveled eastward for a post-Thanksgiving bout in which they won to the tune of 25-11, 25-12 and 25-17.
The two teams battled in the early moments of the first frame, trading points to a 5-4 Rutgers lead.
But Illinois responded with an 11-point run, holding a 16-4 advantage and effectively running away with the set. The Knights had no answer, as Illinois cleaned up the round with a 25-11 victory.
Despite the Illini posting the first three points of the second set, the home side was able to keep it close into the middle of the set, holding Illinois within a three point lead.
But at 13-10, the team hailing from Champaign-Urbana found its groove once again, scoring 12 of the last 14 points and snatching the second set, 25-12.
The third set saw a stronger start from Rutgers, in which it got out to an early 3-1 lead.
Illinois dominated the middle of the set though, going on two separate four-point streaks, extending the score to 11-6 in its favor.
Though the Knights attempted to mount a comeback late on, the visitors held their ground and swept the night, winning the third, 25-17.
But all was not lost individually for Rutgers, as senior right side Lauren Cloyd continued her excellent form, nabbing 11 kills, pacing the side for the sixth time in its last seven games.
And appropriately, the next night was Senior Night, as Cloyd, alongside middle blocker Mikaela Matthews and right side Lauren Cloyd, was honored Saturday night.
Going into the match, perhaps no team matched up closer to the Knights in the Big Ten than Northwestern, and that was certainly evident throughout the night.
But at the end, the Wildcats escaped with the 3-0 victory, winning by scores of 25-17, 25-23 and 25-23.
The first set was all Northwestern, as its early lead allowed it to draw on momentum to carry it to the 25-point mark. The visitors kept Rutgers at bay for much of the period, eventually winning, 25-17.
The Knights came out swinging in the second set, going point-for-point with the Wildcats in the beginning until they got out on a run. Rutgers came clawing back in the final stretch, scoring seven of the prior nine points and tying the score at 23.
Unable to finish, as has been the case throughout the entire season, Northwestern retired the Knights at a 25-23 scoreline.
The third game started similarly to the last, with both sides trading points up to a 9-9 clip. Northwestern then went on a run of its own, distancing itself as it had done in the second set.
But once again, Rutgers fought back in the last few points, posting eight of the previous nine points before the score was locked once again at 23.
A microcosm of their entire season, the Knights had a small taste of the finish line only for it to be moved a few feet in front as the Evanston, Illinois, side evaded defeat once again, winning 25-23.
The weekend’s losses were 27 and 28 in the streak and characterized a running narrative of Rutgers’ troubles beginning and ending sets.
Against Illinois, the Knights struggled in establishing their rhythm early, allowing the Illini to draw on its momentum throughout the sets.
And versus Northwestern, Rutgers capped off its blinding late-set runs with errors and a lack of coordination in the final points, giving the Wildcats a clear route to victory.
It was a season to forget for head coach CJ Werneke and company, and with him losing three of his best players in Cloyd, Matthews and Trimble to graduation, it will be a difficult task to set the Knights out on the right foot next season and end a trend now synonymous with the program.
Rutgers will be entering its fourth year in the Big Ten, and it hasn’t found success yet out on the volleyball court. Much of that will depend on this year’s underclassmen and the fresh recruits.
And for then, the goal remains the same — win a Big Ten game.
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