No. 9 Rutgers closes out regular season at No. 19 Ohio State
The Rutgers men’s lacrosse team’s entire season comes down to Saturday afternoon, when it will play in a de facto playoff game against No. 19 Ohio State, in which the winner goes to the Big Ten Tournament and the loser’s season is likely over.
Both teams sit at 2-2 in the Big Ten and Saturday is the regular season finale. The Buckeyes (7-6, 2-2) are coming off a road upset of No. 1 Maryland, while the No. 9 Scarlet Knights (9-4, 2-2) most recently took down then-No. 11 Penn State by a score of 11-8.
With major postseason implications on the line, Rutgers is not lacking any confidence and no nerves are apparent as the team readies for the biggest game of the season.
“It’s just like any other week for us,” said junior midfielder Mark Christiano. “We know you just gotta put the work in. It’s about the process and that will lead to the end result.”
The Knights were in a similar situation a week ago against the Nittany Lions, where a loss would have been a huge hit to their postseason résumé and a win would likely catapult them into the NCAA Tournament Committee’s top-10 rankings.
After two 1-goal losses to then-No. 6 Johns Hopkins and the then-No. 1 Terrapins, being able to make plays down the stretch against Penn State helped the team’s confidence in close games, Christiano said.
“Being able to close it out, just have that composure, was really huge and helped us win,” he said.
In Ohio State, Rutgers is facing a team that went through a rough patch in the middle of the season and enters at just 7-6, but is coming off two straight conference wins and still has an outside shot at the NCAA Tournament if it can make a run in the Big Ten.
In a word, the Buckeyes are desperate, and the Knights will without a doubt get their hardest punch.
Redshirt freshman defender Garrett Bullett said that Rutgers is prepared for this moment and the way the team played against the Nittany Lions gave it the confidence it needs to go on the road and close out the season with a massive win.
“We’re gonna be flying around, playing fast like we always do,” Bullett said. “This is a playoff game, this is a must-win for us. This is a big one, and we’re ready for it.”
The Knights are as confident as they’ve been all season, and after narrowly missing out on the NCAA Tournament the last two seasons, it is clear that they are not ready to make it three in a row.
“We’re gonna go to their place, I think we’re gonna smack ‘em around,” Bullett said. “We’re gonna do what we do best.”
When asked about the magnitude of Saturday’s game, head coach Brian Brecht threw out his favorite saying and one he has used all season: “At the end of the day we need to take care of ourselves.”
Rutgers controls its own destiny for both the Big Ten and NCAA Tournaments and that has no doubt been Brecht’s message to his team as they prepare for a season-defining matchup with Ohio State.
Against Penn State, the Knights did not win a faceoff in the second half, but it obviously did not affect the outcome of the game. Brecht credits that to Rutgers being top-notch in all areas of the game, and added that he has tons of confidence in his two senior faceoff specialists, Joe Francisco and Alex Schoen, to get the job done.
Brecht said he aims for a 50-percent mark on faceoffs and when the Knights are able to do that, they are usually successful. The rest of the team is deep enough and skilled enough to the point where they don’t need to be elite at the faceoff X every week and can still be a top-10 team.
And at the end of the day, Brecht said, it will come down to his team being able to make plays in all areas of the game.
“We have to execute and do what we do extremely well,” he said. “... It’s about us. It’s about how we play. Are we gonna make saves, are we gonna put the ball in the back of the cage, are we gonna out-ground ball them and have more opportunities in possessions? Are we gonna clear the ball first time and be able to run in transition?”