Knights fall early in tourney
The No. 23 Rutgers women’s soccer team got the ball rolling on its hottest stretch of the season earlier in the year on Sept. 28 with a 1-0 win at Iowa. The Scarlet Knights ripped off five wins in a row, catapulting them to new heights in their new conference.
But following the Knights’ second encounter with the Hawkeyes, this time in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten Conference Tournament, there were no celebrations or winning streak to extend — only a continuous fall from the level they once reached over a month ago.
Appearing to have returned back to form after turning in one of its best all-around performances of the year in the regular season finale last Friday at Ohio State, fourth-seeded Rutgers dropped a 1-0 contest in its first Big Ten Conference Tournament game Wednesday morning against Iowa.
The fifth-seeded Hawkeyes (13-6-1) move on to face Northwestern, which sent shockwaves throughout the Big Ten with its 1-0 upset over top-seeded Penn State.
But for Rutgers (12-5-1), the recent slide continues in what was potentially the final game of what once had the potential to be the greatest season in the program’s rich history.
Head coach Mike O’Neill acknowledged the positives he saw from his players throughout the contest but reminded that the result of the match came down not being able to execute.
“I think in the first half, we did some good things. I just think we needed to be a bit cleaner in possession,” O’Neill said. “We needed to take care of the ball a little bit better. Sometimes, we did a good job of that as well, and we had some when we got into the final third. I thought we just had to have some more courage to do some things.”
Iowa wasted no time in asserting itself in its attempt to avenge a loss from earlier in the season against Rutgers.
In the 10th minute, a rapid sequence occurred beginning with a corner kick from the far side by Iowa forward Bri Toelle. Iowa defender Melanie Pickert received the send in at the front of the net, attempting a shot on goal that Rutgers junior defender Brianne Reed blocked.
But the ball bounced around and landed out to Iowa defender Natalie Krygier, who beamed a shot into the back of the net to give the Hawkeyes a 1-0 advantage.
In Reed’s mind, the Knights were still where they wanted to be. They still had 80 minutes of regulation to conjure up a shutout throughout the rest of the way along with two goals to rally a comeback win.
“When [Iowa] scored that early, there’s no doubt in our minds that we’re going to come back,” Reed said. “We had 80 minutes to produce. We had good shots on goal. We had 16 shots on goal. It’s just finding the back of the net was tough today.”
Aside from falling into the early hole, Rutgers garnered more than enough opportunities on the offensive side of the ball to find an equalizer. Throughout the entirety of the contest, the Knights outshot the Hawkeyes, 16-9.
But when it came to scoring, senior midfielder Amy Pietrangelo and the offense couldn’t seem to figure out a way to break through.
“Today was actually a tough game. We worked hard, we gave it our all and the effort was there,” Pietrangelo said. “I think we struggled a little bit in the first half and just couldn’t connect in the final third. … Obviously, the second half was a lot better, but we just couldn’t finish.”
Despite being shut out, Rutgers had its fair share of chances to get on the scoreboard.
In the 18th minute, senior forward Stef Scholz almost responded for the Knights, but her bid for an early equalizer from 15 yards out on the left side clanked off of the far post.
Frantically searching for an opportunity to create some magic down the stretch, junior defender Erica Skroski almost converted. On a Rutgers set piece, Pietrangelo sent a pass forward to an open Skroski, but Iowa goalkeeper Hannah Clark made the stop.
Having lost three of their last four matches now, the Knights find themselves scrambling for answers to some pivotal questions: How can they establish the consistency that once propelled them to an 11-1-1 start, and will they have an opportunity for redemption in the NCAA Tournament?
Awaiting a possible at-large bid as they did last year, players and staff can only hope their resume carries the weight from their bright spots earlier in the season rather than their recent turmoil.
A stunned Pietrangelo reflected on the dreams she and her teammates held since the dog days of training under a baking August sun, grinding with aspirations of hoisting a Big Ten Championship trophy and sporting championship rings on their fingers at the end of the season.
With that vision evaporating and the hope of reaching the NCAA Tournament wavering, Pietrangelo said the only thing left to do is continue to work hard and hope the cards fall in their favor.
“As of right now, I think we’re all in a little bit of a shock. We came out confidently and [I] definitely didn’t think that was going to happen in my last game,” she said. “But we’ve got to stay positive because we’ve worked hard all year. Hopefully, what we did before this game was enough to get us a bid to the NCAA Tournament, so we’re going to stay hopeful for now.”
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