Rutgers reflects on season

<p>Senior center back Mitch Lurie enjoyed his only season on the Banks as the Knights reached the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2011 and advanced to the semifinals of the Big Ten Tournament for the first time in program history.</p>

Senior center back Mitch Lurie enjoyed his only season on the Banks as the Knights reached the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2011 and advanced to the semifinals of the Big Ten Tournament for the first time in program history.

The Rutgers men’s soccer team entered 2015 expected by outsiders to repeat the lackluster season it produced in its first season in the Big Ten the year prior.

Returning a majority of the team that finished second to last in the Big Ten with a record of 6-12-1, the Scarlet Knights were not looked upon as a major threat in one of the premier conferences in the country.

But looking back on a season that saw the Knights earn their first NCAA Tournament birth since 2011, reached the semifinals of the Big Ten Tournament for the first time in program history and finished ranked in the final four NSCAA Coaches Polls, including a final No. 23 ranking, Rutgers proved the preseason predictions wrong.

“It was awesome. It was a great ride,” said senior center back Mitch Lurie. “Going from 6-12-1 to 12-7-1 … It shows that we’re a big-time contender and I think it’s very good. Getting into the NCAA Tournament ... shows you’ve had a good season and you’re one of the top teams in the country, which is always good to know. I’m just glad the season went the way it did and guys did very well and everybody got better as players.”

While the season came to an abrupt end for the Knights with a 6-1 shellacking at the hands of No. 4 Akron in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, it was a huge step in the right direction for a program adjusting to the demands of playing high-level competition every year.

Rutgers looks to use the loss to a school it can mold its program after as a learning experience, said head coach Dan Donigan.

“I just told them after the game I’m very proud and those guys have helped us build this program to where it’s respectable now,” Donigan said following the loss. “This is a little bit of a setback but it’s not going to stop us from moving forward.”

In the first few weeks of regular season action, however, the projections of an unsuccessful year appeared to be coming to fruition.

The Knights started the season 2-2-1 in the first five games of the season, dropping a heartbreaking 1-0 decision to Wisconsin — the only team they finished ahead of in the Big Ten last season — on a last second golden goal in double-overtime in its first conference game.

Things looked to be turning in the right direction in Rutgers next conference matchup when it crushed then-No. 22 Indiana 4-1 in Bloomington after struggling to produce on the offensive end in the first five matches of the season.

The Knights then dropped their next two conference matches at home, however, to Michigan State and Penn State — the latter of which saw a near 3-hour power outage extend the game late into the night — and the season outlook appeared bleak for the boys from the Banks.

Until the next conference game changed everything.

“I think the turning point for us was when we played Michigan at Michigan,” said Mitch Lurie, who captained the team along with senior midfielder Mitchell Taintor. “I think the team played very, very well both offensively and defensively in that game. We figured out that, ‘Hey, these guys are on top of the Big Ten,’ so we were like, ‘Okay, well, if they’re on top of the Big Ten and we just went on the road and beat these guys, there’s no reason we can’t be on top of the Big Ten.’”

The 1-0 win over then-Big Ten leaders Michigan was the second of a 7-game winning streak for Rutgers where its attack came to life, outscoring opponents, 16-4, and its defense solidified, keeping five shutouts during the stretch.

As the wins kept coming in for the Knights, so did the points, as they climbed up the Big Ten standings. The sixth win of the streak, a 1-0 upset of then-No. 18 Ohio State at Yurcak Field on Oct. 25, pushed Rutgers to first place in the Big Ten for the first time in program history.

The streak was abruptly ended on the last day of the regular season in a 3-1 loss to Maryland at College Park, dropping the Knights to a fourth-place finish in the standings and a fourth seed in the Big Ten tournament.

Rutgers opened the tournament with a 2-0 win over Northwestern in the quarterfinals at Yurcak Field to reach the semifinals for the first time in just its second season in the Big Ten.

Ohio State was awaiting a rematch in the semifinals and it avenged its earlier loss in Piscataway with a 4-0 thumping of the Knights in Columbus to knock them out of the conference tournament.

Looking back on the season after the Big Ten Tournament, Rutgers was confident it would earn its first berth into the NCAA Tournament since 2011, but nothing was guaranteed.

When its spot in the tournament was announced at the NCAA Tournament Selection Show three days after its loss to the Buckeyes, the pain of defeat was forgotten and euphoria reigned among the Knights.

“My favorite moment of the season had to be when we saw our name up on the board to get into the NCAA Tournament because that’s just kind of the moment where you take everything in and you realize that all the hard work you put in for the previous couple of months and the previous 16 to 17 games … paid off,” Lurie said. “It was a sigh of relief to see all the hard work we put in allowed us to play in the postseason.”

A big reason for Rutgers' successful year was sophomore forward Jason Wright. The unanimous Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year finished the season as the top scorer in the Big Ten with 13 goals, including the game-winner in each of the Knights’ wins over Ohio State and Michigan in the regular season.

Wright’s strong play in the regular season didn’t transition well into the postseason, though, as he was unable to score in any of Rutgers four postseason contests.

With that in the back of his mind, the Kingston, Jamaica, native already looks ahead to next season where he hopes the team’s steady improvement continues. But before more success can come, he and his team must put in the effort in the months before the opening whistle blows to start the 2016 season.

“In the offseason, we’re going to work hard,” Wright said. “We’re looking forward to (preseason training in the) spring.”

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

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