No. 13 Rutgers heads into senior day with postseason berth on the line against No. 4 Ohio State
After a triple-overtime loss to No. 2 Maryland two weeks ago — despite the many positives to take away from almost beating one of the best teams in the country — Rutgers head coach Brian Brecht remained steadfast on one thing.
"You gotta win yourself into the month of May," he said. "Not just play close."
That statement is as true as ever, as the Rutgers men's lacrosse team hosts No. 4 Ohio State this Saturday in what could be the team's last game of the season. But if the No. 13 Scarlet Knights (9-4, 1-3) can pull off the upset, they may just be looking at an at-large bid to the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Tournament.
This is not like basketball where there are 36 at-large bids and all nationally ranked teams are virtual locks to be in the postseason tournament. In lacrosse, only 17 of the 70 teams make the tournament, with nine earning bids from winning their respective conferences while eight need to hope their resumes are enough to get them an at-large bid.
As for Rutgers, Brecht is confident that a win over the Buckeyes (12-2, 3-1) will be enough to get the Knights into the postseason.
"If we win and we take care of business at home on senior day, on alumni day, yes, we'll have an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament," he said. "We need to take care of ourselves. We need to take care of Rutgers, we need to play well. If we play well, we take care of ourselves, our body of work throughout the whole year certainly allows us continue to play in May."
But to beat the fourth-ranked team in the country will require clear minds for the team. Last week against Penn State, the Knights had a unique situation in which the winner of that game clinched a spot in the Big Ten Tournament while the loser was eliminated.
Senior defender Chris Groel said that having that in the back of their heads may have distracted them. On Saturday, a win doesn't clinch anything and a loss ends the team's season.
"I think last week with Penn State game, the whole win and get in mentality got to us a little," he said. "With this week, we've kind of put that behind us and looked more at just being ourselves, playing the way we do and staying confident in the abilities we have to win this game."
And in that game last week, Penn State freshman Gerard Arceri took the Knights to school at the faceoff "X," winning 80 percent on the game and winning all seven in the first quarter, giving the Nittany Lions a lead they would not let up.
It only gets tougher for Rutgers, as Ohio State boasts Jake Withers, who leads the conference with a 68.6 percent winning percentage this season.
"Withers is probably the best faceoff guy in the Big Ten. We've been real good against Michigan and Maryland. We have not done as well against Hopkins and Penn State. If we can control the faceoffs and be 50, 50, I like what we can do."
Up to this point, it hasn't been the success in Big Ten play that Rutgers fans may have expected when the team climbed to the number one ranking earlier in the year. But a bright spot on the team has been senior attacker Connor Murphy, who has really come into his own in conference play.
Through four games, he leads the team with 11 goals and 14 points. Brecht said that with a job on Wall Street lined up for him after graduation, he has been able to completely focus on lacrosse and it has paid off.
"He is playing with house money right now. He is enjoying being a full-time lacrosse player and doing extra work on his own and asking questions and watching film and it shows," Brecht said. "If you put the time in, you will be rewarded for it and he is living proof of that."
The team will need a big game from Murphy — who has had hat tricks in three of four Big Ten games this year — if it wants to extend its season.
Groel and the rest of the graduating class are aware that this could be the last time they step on a field together and are prepared to not hold back their last time for Rutgers lacrosse.
"You can expect everything we've got," he said. "I know the seniors I've been talking to this week are ready. Obviously just in case it's our last game, we're gonna give it everything we've got. I think everyone's gonna play confident and play Rutgers lacrosse."
And for senior attacker Collin Scarpello, who scored his first career goal last week against Penn State, Saturday represents what he has seen the program accomplish over his time on the Banks.
Scarpello is part of a senior class that is only one in Rutgers history to play in both the Big East Tournament and Big Ten Tournament. He has seen the team progress from a mediocre Big East team to one that has established itself as a mainstay in the national rankings and one never to be taken lightly.
And going into the final game he will play in front of a home crowd, he said if given the opportunity again, he wouldn't want it any different. And it doesn't hurt that his final home game will be one of great magnitude, either.
"It's gonna be a little bittersweet. But I'm happy that it's gonna be a game that matters," he said. "For this senior class, we know there's a lot at stake and it's just gonna be awesome to play one more time in High Point Solutions Stadium. I think we left it better than how we found it."