Win over league leaders marks turning point in Rutgers' journey to first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2011

<p>Sophomore forward Jason Wright performed for the Knights when they needed him to. His efforts throughout the season earned him recognition as the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year.</p>

Sophomore forward Jason Wright performed for the Knights when they needed him to. His efforts throughout the season earned him recognition as the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year.

After a nightmare first season in the Big Ten, a lackluster start to its second campaign had the Rutgers men’s soccer team destined for another year at the bottom of the pecking order of its new conference.

Four games into conference play, the Scarlet Knights had just one win — a 4-1 upset over then-No. 22 Indiana in Bloomington — sandwiched in between three losses to Wisconsin, Michigan State and Penn State, all at Yurcak Field.

The latter game against the Nittany Lions saw an abnormally long halftime — two hours and 40 minutes to be exact — ruin any momentum the Knights had heading into the break.

The crushing loss in a budding rivalry could have killed Rutgers’ confidence as the season appeared to be headed to another 1-6-1 finish in conference. 

But it ended up being a turning point of the season.

The Knights earned all three points in their next two Big Ten matchups with a 1-0 upset over then-No. 18 Michigan in Ann Arbor and a thrilling 4-2 win against Northwestern in Chicago. 

The six points on the road pulled Rutgers within two points of the top of the Big Ten standings, somewhere it had yet to reach in its year and a half as a member.

Proving they could win away from home against top level competition, the Knights had yet to show they could beat quality opponents on their home turf. 

With then-Big Ten leading No. 18 Ohio State coming to town, Rutgers had a chance to kill two birds with one stone — beating a ranked team at home for the first time all season to demonstrate its ability to perform in front of a home crowd, and reaching first place in the Big Ten for the first time ever.

On Oct. 25, the Knights showed their form wasn’t a fluke and that they were a team to be taken seriously with a 1-0 win over the Buckeyes. 

Not only did they defeat their visitors from Columbus, they did it convincingly, containing Ohio State’s potent attack with a solid defensive display.

The win showed those watching what the players on the field knew all along. They weren’t just happy to be a member of the Big Ten — they were going to compete for a spot amongst the big boys of the conference.

In 2014, Rutgers finished eighth in the nine-team Big Ten at the end of the regular season with a record of 6-12-1 and was eliminated in the quarterfinals of the conference tournament. As a result, the Knights were not given an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament.

Rutgers finished the 2015 season with a record of 12-7-2, good enough for a fourth place finish in the Big Ten regular season standings, a semifinal spot in the Big Ten Tournament and an appearance in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2011, where they were eliminated in the second round.

Sophomore forward Jason Wright, named the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year at the end of the regular season, scored the winning goal for Rutgers against the Buckeyes just as he did against the Wolverines.

A member of the 2014 team that finished second-to-last in the Big Ten in its first season in the conference, he and his teammates saw themselves reap the rewards of their effort in the offseason with every win. 

Seeing Rutgers at the top of the table for the first time made all the work he put in worth it.

“It’s a great feeling knowing that all the hard work that each individual has put in and the team collectively (is worth it).” he said at the end of the biggest win for his program since joining the Big Ten. “Being awarded with being at the top of the table ... is important.”

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

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