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Rutgers hosts LIU Brooklyn in first NCAA Tournament game since 2011

It’s been four years in the making, but it was worth the wait.

The Rutgers men’s soccer team plays its first NCAA Tournament match since 2011 when it takes on LIU Brooklyn under the lights at Yurcak Field.

The only member of the Scarlet Knights (12-6-1, 4-4-0) returning from the last team to participate in the biggest tournament in collegiate soccer is JP Correa. 

The fifth-year senior saw action in the tournament as a freshman and will close his career on the Banks playing in the competition the Knights have been working to return to over four tumultuous seasons.

“It’s a nice feeling,” Correa said of playing in the tournament twice. “Come in my freshman year, be in the tournament, my last year, be in the tournament, so it’s a nice way to go out.”

Correa, who redshirted the year after Rutgers’ last tournament appearance due to injury, is easily the most experienced member of the team. 

Having talked to the team throughout the season of what it’s like to make the tournament, he can now share his advice on how to prepare for the biggest stage of all of his teammates’ careers.

“I would definitely say treat it like any other game,” Correa said of his advice to his teammates. “I know it’s not an ordinary game but you just gotta give it your all and just go out there and win.”

The Blackbirds (11-5-4, 7-0-0) from Brooklyn represent the first obstacle in the Knights’ journey to the unanimous team goal of a first national championship in program history. 

They earned their way to the tournament by dominating the Northeast Conference, winning the conference tournament in a penalty shootout after finishing the regular season undefeated in conference play. Brooklyn is undefeated in its past 12 matches, winning nine in that stretch. 

NEC Rookie of the Year Rasmus Hansen, a former member of 10-time Danish Superliga champions Brondby IF’s academy, helped lead the Blackbirds to this position. The freshman midfielder scored eight goals and assisted on another four in his first season in Brooklyn.

On the other end of the field, junior goalkeeper Logan Keys has been a brick wall for the Blackbirds. Keys ranks sixth in the nation in goals against average, allowing just .505 goals per contest.

Just as Rutgers head coach Dan Donigan was named Big Ten Coach of the Year, Brooklyn head coach TJ Kostecky was named NEC Coach of the Year for the undefeated conference schedule he led his team to.

With all the talent the Blackbirds bring to Piscataway and history on their side — they’ve won eight of the 11 meetings between the teams, including a 2-0 shutout win at Yurcak Field the last time they met — Donigan makes sure his team knows they are not to be taken likely. 

At the same time, he’s worried more about what the 11 players he puts on the field will do than what the players on the other side of the pitch are capable of.

“We expect them to be good,” Donigan said. “Obviously, they’ve turned their team around this year and gotten very good results and I’m sure they’re gonna be tough. We just gotta, for me, worry about ourselves and make sure we bounce back from our last performance and I think our guys know this is a new opportunity and a new season and they’re excited about it.”

The last performance the sixth-year head coach mentions is the 4-0 drubbing suffered at the hands of then-No. 12 Ohio State in the semifinals of the Big Ten Tournament last Friday in Columbus.

The loss was the second in three games for the Knights after they fell in the regular season finale at College Park to eventual Big Ten Tournament champion Maryland, 2-0. It dropped Rutgers to a fourth-place finish in the regular season.

Holding the third-longest winning streak after rallying off seven straight victories earlier in the season, two losses in three games certainly could be reason for panic for Rutgers as it heads towards the most crucial stretch of the season.

But instead of having doubts, the Knights look at what they did right in two match-ups against the Big Ten regular season and postseason champions.

“They’re good teams that we lost to. I know that 4-0 game looks bad on paper, but I don’t think we played that bad at all,” Correa said. “There’s a lot of positives we can take from that game, we just gotta clean up a couple of things and be focused from the get go.”

The path Rutgers must take in order to progress in the tournament is similar to the one the Knights faced in Correa’s freshman year.

After defeating Colgate, 4-2, at home — a game where Correa scored the game-winner — Rutgers traveled to fourth-seeded Boston College and upset the Eagles in penalty kicks to advance to the third round of the competition, where its run was ended by No. 5 UCLA, 3-0.

If the Knights defeat LIU Brooklyn Thursday, they will travel to Akron to face the fourth-seeded Zips with another chance to make a surprising run to the Sweet 16.

Hearing Correa talk about his experience in the tournament serves as motivation for the younger members of Rutgers, which hopes to have a similar story to tell when all is said and done in the 2015 edition of the NCAA Tournament.

“We’ve talked about it in the past,” said junior goalkeeper David Greczek. “(Correa) just says when you have moments like that, you just gotta enjoy it because they made a great trip all the way to the Sweet 16 and if we could do that or go even further, obviously, that would be great and it would be a great memory to have.”

For updates on the Rutgers men’s soccer team, follow @briannnnf and @TargumSports on Twitter.

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