No. 11 Rutgers opens Big Ten Tournament against top-seeded No. 2 Maryland
At the end of the 2018 season, the Rutgers men's lacrosse team will graduate a senior class of 14 athletes that all have a few things in common. Those 14 players have never beaten Maryland, never won a conference championship and never made it to the NCAA Tournament.
That can all change this weekend when the No. 11 Scarlet Knights (9-5, 2-3) play in the Big Ten Tournament as the No. 4 seed, but on the outside looking in at the NCAA Tournament.
Senior captain and defender Michael Rexrode was just named the 2018 Big Ten Defensive Player of the year, is a two-time First-Team All-Big Ten performer and was recently awarded the Big Ten Medal of Honor as the male representative for Rutgers.
Senior captain and attacker Jules Heningburg will go down as one of the best attackers in Rutgers history. He led the Big Ten with 69 points this season and like Rexrode, is a two-time First-Team All-Big Ten honoree.
Those two are the faces of the program and will probably need to upset No. 2 Maryland on Thursday afternoon to keep their final season on the Banks alive. A loss would knock the Knights out of the conference tournament and likely leave them as one of the last teams out of the NCAA Tournament.
"It's an accumulation of every thing we've done here," Heningburg said. "We've put ourselves in a good position in the postseason to keep playing. If we can win, we can keep playing on and i think that would mean a lot to everyone in the locker room."
The last time these two teams met, it was a thriller that saw the Terrapins overcome a 9-8 fourth quarter deficit to win by a score of 11-10.
Despite falling behind 4-0 in the first quarter, the Knights battled back to tie the game at halftime, eventually leading to a back-and-forth affair that saw them on the wrong end of a one-goal game.
"(We needed) better game management down the stretch," Heningburg said. "We were up by a goal towards the end and we didn't handle that."
While Rutgers didn't manage the game towards the end, it was Maryland's Connor Kelly, the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year, who had a career game, scoring 4 goals and adding 4 assists for an 8-point performance.
Since Kelly plays more of a midfield role, it won't necessarily be the Big Ten's best defensive player in Rexrode versus the best offensive in Kelly, but it will still be a matchup that could decide the game, as Kelly is what makes the Terps' offense tick.
"We're gonna respect him, but we're not gonna fear him at all," Rexrode said.
Rexrode added that the team is well aware that the conference tournament is do-or-die, but the Knights won't let the moment get the best of them.
After losing a one-goal game to then-No. 6 Johns Hopkins earlier in the season and the aforementioned one-goal loss to Maryland, there's no better time than Thursday for this senior class to prove that it can deliver in a signature moment.
"It's all come to this. I think we recognize that. At the same time, we're not scared of the moment at all. I think we're ready to come out and perform how we know we can," Rexrode said. "We know that the four years have led up to this, but so has our hard work and I think it's all gonna show come game time."
Head coach Brian Brecht has been with these seniors every step of the way and always goes out of his way to compliment them on what they have meant to the program.
And when asked if this upcoming weekend was a "defining moment" for them, Brecht laughed and agreed.
"This class has been great. They've brought Rutgers lacrosse to a whole nother level," he said. "...The one win they don't have is Maryland in the Big Ten. The one thing they don't have yet is a Big Ten Championship. This is the second time they've competed in the (Big Ten) Tournament. They don't have an NCAA bid. I guess this is a defining moment."