No. 14 Rutgers puts away Wagner with balanced effort
With the thought of No. 19 Brown coming to visit Piscataway on Saturday in its first ranked matchup of the season, it would have been easy for the Rutgers men’s lacrosse team to overlook Wagner on Tuesday afternoon.
The No. 14 Scarlet Knights (4-0) did anything but that, with their defense shutting out Wagner in the first half and the offense regaining potency en route to a 12-5 victory over the Seahawks (1-3).
Rutgers took a 6-0 lead into the locker room, with a 22-6 advantage in shots and a 14-3 advantage in shots on goal.
The Knights were able to double their first half production in the third quarter alone, but lost their shutout bid, as Wagner scored twice in the penultimate period, though Rutgers did maintain a 10-2 lead going into the fourth quarter and were able to put in some backups to close out the game.
The defensive dominance is nothing new for the Knights, as this is their second straight game shutting out an opponent in multiple quarters of a game. Head coach Brian Brecht attributes much of the unit’s success to preparation.
“I think the last two games the defensive guys have done a great job of preparing well, understanding their matchups, obviously playing very strong themselves, knowing their roles, their jobs, their responsibilities — close defense, rope unit, (junior) Max (Edelmann) in the goal — I’ve been really pleased with them,” he said.
While the offense put in 6 goals in the first half, it felt like the game was much more lopsided, as a 6-goal lead is not insurmountable, especially with 30 minutes left to play.
Rutgers needed someone to step up and help put the game out of reach. The catalyst came in the form of junior faceoff man Joe Francisco. In the second half, he was nearly perfect from the “X,” winning eight of nine faceoffs, including one where he took it coast to coast for his first goal of the season to put Rutgers up 12-2 with just under 13 minutes on the day.
Brecht has said he hopes to go 50 percent on faceoffs each game and Francisco exceeded expectations by a huge margin, going 75 percent on the day.
“He was over 50 percent, I think the success today is just what we need from him heading into March and having a top-20 team (No. 19 Brown) come into High Point (Solutions Stadium) on Saturday,” Brecht said.
Once again, the Knights did not get great production goal-wise from the starting attacking unit, as junior Jules Heningburg and freshman Kieran Mullins were only able to score once each and senior Connor Murphy had no points.
Despite this, Heningburg and Mullins combined for seven assists, finding open midfielders like junior Christian Mazzone — who had a hat trick — and contributing to the most balanced score sheet of the season, with nine different players scoring a goal, including senior Charlie Nicklaus with the first of his career.
Brecht said that the balance is crucial in replacing lost production due to injuries. Players like senior midfielder Jeff George and sophomore long-stick midfielder Garrett Michaeli have seen their roles increase dramatically and have really stepped up to the challenge and have been the main reason why Rutgers has not missed a beat this year.
“I think that’s probably the reason why we’ve been successful, ranked 10th in the country (USILA Coaches Poll) with all the injuries we’ve had,” Brecht said. “To have the next guy be able to step up, plug and play and still continue to have success is obviously a great testament to our coaching staff for developing them but also for the players.”
And while new players have stepped up on offense and in the midfield, the defense remains a constant strength, as the unit boasts loads of experience. The team’s best position group is led by senior Chris Groel, junior Michael Rexrode and junior Alex Bronzo, while Edelmann has anchored the team in between the pipes.
Rexrode said that the defense is very confident in its ability and the chemistry in that unit is what keeps them playing at such a high level this season.
With exception to some breakdowns in communication with reserves in the fourth quarter, the Knights' defense was impenetrable, as the first team only gave up 1 goal in a set defense and did not allow Wagner to get any clear looks for the first two quarters.
Despite No. 19 Brown — a team averaging 21 goals per game — coming to Piscataway on Saturday, Rexrode remains confident is the defense’s ability and with the starters allowing just 5 goals in their last 7 quarters of play, it is hard to argue with that sentiment.
“I think we’re pretty solid. We got a bunch of guys who got a lot of experience down there. It’s kind of a veteran group,” he said. “I think we really trust each other and we’re really flowing around with great communication which is key on defense. I think we’re looking pretty good.”