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Rutgers eyes breakthrough season with veteran squad

<p>Junior defender Sophia Walia is one of 12 Knights returning for the 2015 season. With the experience and leadership retained from last year's squad, Rutgers reaches for the next level in its second year in the Big Ten.</p>

Junior defender Sophia Walia is one of 12 Knights returning for the 2015 season. With the experience and leadership retained from last year's squad, Rutgers reaches for the next level in its second year in the Big Ten.

As the summer days waver on similarly to the way the tide comes in and retracts along the shoreline, the highly anticipated countdown to Aug. 11 reaches greater heights.

This day marks the Rutgers field hockey team’s kickoff to their 2015 preseason. Head coach Meredith Long will have 12 days with her team of returners and incoming freshmen before competition begins.

While the Scarlet Knights are preparing in different areas of the world — from the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada and all the way back to New Jersey — fervent anticipation to put their efforts into action pervades the ladies in scarlet.

“We’re looking forward to a really tough season, as always,” said junior defender Sophia Walia. “We’re excited. We’ve been training all summer for preseason and after that we get right into competition which is great because we get to ... knock out the cobwebs and then start playing as hard as we can right away.”

Rutgers comes off of a hard fought inaugural season in the Big Ten in which it went 9-10 overall and 2-7 in conference play. After the first postseason birth since 2010, the Knights were eliminated in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten Tournament after a tough 3-0 loss to No. 3 seed Michigan.

The schedule Rutgers faces, as a member of the Big Ten conference, is a daunting one. Last season’s competition was fierce, as four of the teams the Knights opposed earned NCAA Tournament bids and seven teams ended the season ranked in the top 20 teams nationally.

With one rookie season under its belt of playing within the conference known to be bigger, better and faster, Rutgers goes into 2015 with a strong understanding of the competition it will encounter in the fall.

“I think we’ve learned a lot from the Big Ten,” Walia said. “You know, we’re playing against really good schools that have a history of winning and repeating that history. For us, we learned that we are creating our own history right now as we speak, and that’s something that can hold our heads high from and have some pride in.”

Rutgers is gaining its footing within the powerhouse conference, nonetheless.

Having lost just two players since last season, captains Jenn Stabb and Sophie Wright, 12 players return this season with starting experience. Additionally, five incoming freshmen from New Jersey, Holland and Canada will join this year, further adding to the squad’s talent pool.

“I am very excited about the group we have returning. It’s a very seasoned and very experienced group,” Long said. “And then we have a lot young, exciting freshmen coming in who I really feel are going to compete for a spot right off the bat ... I’m looking forward to seeing what those new players bring to the table in August.”

The Knights have a tough season ahead of them, but bring valuable strengths into it. The team once considered young and inexperienced has grown to be a seasoned group of veterans.

“I think we have a lot of great skill and since we did only lose two players, we connect very well on the team and everybody knows how each other plays,” said junior midfielder Alyssa Bull. “I think everyone really wants to be here and everyone really wants to win so I think that’s something that is really gonna help us in this upcoming season.”

Rutgers is acutely aware of the weakness it possessed last season and is focused on correcting such pitfalls this year. The team undoubtedly has the talent and the motivation, but execution needs to become steady when it comes time for Big Ten play.

“We want to be able to play a consistent game because that consistency is going to carry on to the bigger and harder competitions,” Walia said. “I think that that’s something that we struggled with last season and hopefully after experiencing that obstacle we had to overcome as a team, we’ll get better at consistency throughout this upcoming season.”

The Knights, determined to prove themselves as contenders, have built a foundation of support both on and off the field. A strong team dynamic propels each individual player closer toward the player they each strive to be.

Such individual advances will then translate on the field to collective team success — and it begins with the 2015 season.

“We all want to see the best of every single person on this team and that really helps us in our competitions and in our trainings,” Walia said. “We push each other hard in training and that gets us prepared for competition — that’s what makes us so strong as a team and as a program and that’s why we have the ability to change our history at Rutgers field hockey. That’s what is going to take us as far as we want to go.”

For updates on the Rutgers field hockey team, follow @TargumSports on Twitter.

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