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Rutgers seeks Big Ten regular season title

<p>After fighting through a rough first season in the Big Ten, junior midfielder Erik Sa is happy to be playing meaningful soccer on the final matchday of the regular season. The Knights fight for the top seed and home-field advantage throughout the Big Ten Tournament, which starts this weekend.</p>

After fighting through a rough first season in the Big Ten, junior midfielder Erik Sa is happy to be playing meaningful soccer on the final matchday of the regular season. The Knights fight for the top seed and home-field advantage throughout the Big Ten Tournament, which starts this weekend.

Decision day — the day the dust settles and everything is put into place — is here.

Wednesday is the final day of regular season play in Big Ten men’s soccer and there is still much to be decided before the start of the conference tournament this weekend. With the first and fifth place teams separated by just three points, everything is still up for grabs in the league.

But as always, the teams at the top have the most say in how things end up.

No. 16 Rutgers sits in second place with 12 points, one point behind league leaders No. 18 Ohio State, which suffered a 1-0 loss to the Scarlet Knights earlier this season at Yurcak Field.

The Buckeyes have complete control of their own destiny. If they defeat Michigan on Wednesday night, they will win the Big Ten regular season title and earn the top seed in the Big Ten Tournament.

In order for the Scarlet Knights to have a chance to win their first Big Ten regular season title, they must hope Michigan manages to defeat — or at least tie — Ohio State. A slip by the Buckeyes would guarantee the Knights at least a share of the league title. For Rutgers to earn the title outright, it must hope Northwestern drops points against Big Ten bottomfeeders Wisconsin earlier in the day.

But the Knights won’t be thinking about that when they step foot on the field for a game of their own against Maryland.

“Not at all. There’s nothing we can do about that,” head coach Dan Donigan said on whether the OSU match will be on his mind. “We can’t help Michigan beat Ohio State from where we are in Maryland, so we’re just going to try to take care of business on our end, get our three points and … hopefully Michigan can help us out a little bit and help us win a Big Ten regular season title.”

The Knights (11-4-1, 4-3-0) will be at College Park facing the Terrapins at the same time as the Buckeyes and Wolverines duke it out in Columbus.

Maryland (7-5-4, 2-2-3) is coming off of a big loss to Ohio State over the weekend in a game that could’ve put the team in the driver’s seat of the conference had it won. Instead, the best finish the Terps could earn with a win over Rutgers is second place, a large upgrade from their current sixth place position.

The Knights cannot afford to deviate from their strong form — Rutgers has won seven straight since the 2-0 power outage defeat to Penn State, the third longest active streak in the nation — if they hope to return to Piscataway with a top-two seed.

Traveling to a field that averages 3,640 fans per contest to face a team who defeated then-No. 1 UCLA and played No. 10 Akron close earlier in the season, there will be a small margin of error for the boys from the Banks. 

But Rutgers has been better away from Piscataway throughout its campaign. The Knights have won five straight contests outside of Yurcak Field, their longest such streak since 1993. 

Having played at prestigious, packed venues before, Donigan believes his team will be unfazed by the noise in the stands.

“They’re a very talented team, a young team ... like every other match in this conference and on our schedule, you can’t underestimate anybody,” Donigan said. “I’m sure it’s going to be a pretty exciting atmosphere to play in, but our guys are mature enough and intelligent enough to realize they could only put 11 guys on the other side of the field. The crowd just adds to the excitement and the environment and … you just kind of feed off of that excitement.”

While the Knights fight for the top spot in the conference, Jason Wright fights for the top spot in the nation’s scoresheet. The sophomore forward’s tally of 13 goals is just two goals behind Nick DePuy of UC Santa Barbara for the national lead.

Wright’s last chance to end the regular season as the best goalscorer in Division I soccer will be in Maryland. Wright enters the game with the same objective as always.

“Every game I want to score, so that speaks for itself,” the Kingston, Jamaica, native said. “(I’m) not necessarily trying to be the leading goalscorer or anything — just trying to get my name on the board and help my team to be victorious.”

The rest of Wright’s team will follow suit in their approach to the match.

Without hiding the significance of the game, Rutgers will prepare for its final road trip just as it has prepared all season.

“I’d be lying if I said this isn’t a special game that we don’t mark off on our calendar for a bunch of different reasons, but now even more so with the ramifications and how it could turn out to be a big game for us in terms of maybe winning the conference and helping out our seed,” said junior midfielder Erik Sa. “Having said that, you have to go into it preparing the same way as recently because you don’t want to get too hyped up. You don’t want to mess with what you’re doing. Even though there’s all sorts of different scenarios leading up to this game, you have to treat it just like every other game and play your heart out.”

Sa was a member of the first team to play in the Big Ten in program history last season. The Knights finished second to last in the conference with a record of 6-12-1, their only conference win coming against a Wisconsin team that was unable to take a single match off of Big Ten opposition.

This season has been a complete 180 degree turn for Rutgers. Those who lived through the dark times are enjoying seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.

“It’s really nice to be playing important games that mean so much at this time of the year, especially after the last couple of years where we’ve been fighting to try and get back into playing in these situations,” Sa said. “Now, this year, we’re fighting to get high seeds and play at home, which is so exciting — not only for us, but for our families and the fans.”

Riding the longest winning streak for the program since 1997, the Knights have every reason to be confident in themselves. Not having tasted defeat in over a month of action, they don't see their season coming to a halt anytime soon.

“With the momentum comes believing and having confidence in yourself and the group as a whole. I don’t see anything that can stop that as long as we stick together,” Sa said. “We know it’s not going to be perfect. There’s going to be bumps on the road throughout the rest of this season, whatever that may be. But knowing our style of play and knowing how good we can be is a real big confidence boost and it helps us a lot in those trying times. I don’t see (our run) ending anytime soon.”

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

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