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Rutgers earns NCAA Tournament berth

While a majority of her teammates huddled around to extensively watch the live stream of the Division I Women’s Soccer Selection Show in the coaches’ office at the Hale Center, Tori Leigh slyly watched it from her laptop in the middle of class.

Contrary to past years where the Rutgers women’s soccer team endured the anxiety and stress of the unknown during the selection process, it happened this time within the first five minutes.

Sounding off on the list of matchups between teams in the first region, the Scarlet Knights popped up as the No. 7-seed pitted against No. 10-seed La Salle.

No matter where they were, players like Leigh expressed their excitement.

The oldest player on the team in her fifth year as a defender, Leigh had one message to get across.

“I just think it’s really exciting because I feel like we’re not done yet,” Leigh said. “We got kicked out of the Big Ten Tournament a lot earlier than we wanted to, but this just proves that we have some more fight and we’re not ready to go down. We’re not going down without a fight.”

Caught up in the moment of celebration with her teammates, junior forward Amanda Devolk pointed out that the Knights would be returning to Yurcak Field to host the Explorers.

“Everyone was really excited,” Reed said. “The first thing Amanda Devolk noticed was we had a star next to our name, which meant we got a home seed which is awesome to play [at Yurcak Field] for at least one more time.”

In the entirety of the inaugural season in the Big Ten Conference and the 2014 campaign as a whole, Rutgers (12-5-1, 8-4-1) has crashed the party.

Despite dropping to Iowa in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten Conference Tournament, the Knights were one of three teams to earn a bid to the NCAA Tournament.

Aside from No. 9 Wisconsin’s automatic berth after running the table and winning the conference tournament in a 1-0 win over Iowa, No. 8 Penn State and No. 25 Rutgers were selected as two of the 33 at-large berths in the NCAA Tournament.

Even with Iowa’s run to the Big Ten Tournament final and heartbreaking loss three minutes into double-overtime, the Hawkeyes were left on the outside looking in with the NCAAs and suffered a bitter ending to their season.

Michigan (12-5-3, 8-2-1), which suffered a stunning 1-0 loss in overtime to Minnesota in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten Tournament, also was left out of the 64-team field.

With that in mind, head coach Mike O’Neill reflected on the hard work he, his staff and players have strung together dating all the way back to last spring to set up this opportunity to make something out of it.

“The first piece of it is that we’re very excited,” O’Neill said. “Joining the Big Ten, as we talked about earlier, is that [preseason media predictions] had us picked to finish eighth, and the fact that only three Big Ten teams got into the NCAA [Tournament] and Rutgers is one of them makes it more special, so that says a lot about what we’ve done from day one.”

Despite having lost three of its past four matches, the opportunity to return home is something that adds to the energy for the Knights surrounding the NCAA Tournament berth.

Associate head coach Meghan Ryan put into words the scene of when Rutgers appeared on the board during the selection show, noticing the reaction that followed when the players realized they would get to step foot on Yurcak Field one more time.

“… When [the players] saw that we were hosting, [the excitement] just elevated to one more level. They were so excited,” Ryan said. “… Senior Day was our last home game and, as you know, it wasn’t the way we wanted to end. … We’ve been on the road the past three weeks, so I think to have one more game that’s guaranteed in front of your friends and family, it just gives [the players] another extra step of motivation to win the game.”

For updates on the Rutgers women’s soccer team, follow @TargumSports on Twitter.

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