Seniors lead Rutgers to turnaround season
When the Rutgers men's lacrosse team took the field for the first time in the 2016 season, there wasn't much change in the roster compared to the prior year.
The Scarlet Knights added a couple of notable first-year players to its lineup, including redshirt freshman Adam Charalambides on the attack, true freshman long-stick midfielder Kyle Pless to the rope unit and community college transfer sophomore Max Edelmann in net.
Although they lost faceoff savant Joe Nardella to graduation, the core of the team remained the same from the 5-10 overall and 1-4 Big Ten finish from 2015.
The Knights were picked to finish last in the Big Ten this season after a less than impressive entrance into the conference. They nearly pulled out multiple signature wins last season — losing three of its conference games by 2 goals or less — and lost Nardella, which further explains their low ranking.
But in the days leading up to the season, Rutgers' captain at the time said something not usually heard from a team expected to finish in the basement of the standings.
"Our end goal is to win that Big Ten Championship," senior attacker Scott Bieda told the Daily Targum Feb. 11.
What appeared like a bold statement at the time, relative to where the Knights were picked to finish the year, has turned into a real possibility through the first nine weeks of lacrosse.
Rutgers (9-2, 2-0) has distinguished itself as the No. 18 in the nation with elusive wins over Army and then-No. 9 Johns Hopkins. The Knights currently sit atop the Big Ten standings — although there are three conference teams ranked ahead of them — and probably need just one win out of their final three games to punch their tickets to Baltimore for the Big Ten Tournament at the end of the season.
So what gave Bieda and the rest of the program the confidence to turn things around and make a run at a Big Ten title?
Look no further than the elder statesmen on the team who endured a combined finish of 15-31 their first three seasons on the Banks and made it a mission to turn things around in their final season.
"The senior group that we have, we've had a rough four years honestly if you look our record throughout," Bieda said. "But we stuck together, we changed the culture here and the environment, and the hard work and the hustle. ... Since the start of the fall, since we got together and made a stance that that was going to be a Rutgers standard this year. I knew that this was going to be the season we had. With all the kids that bought into that system there was no way that this wasn't gonna happen."
What makes the Knights' current senior class unique is two-fold.
The first reason the seniors have had such an effective influence is that there is at least one senior in every unit.
Senior long-stick midfielder Zack Sikora, who has since been named the other captain alongside Scott Bieda, is the lone upperclassmen in the rope unit.
Senior defender Brandford Rogers is joined by junior Chris Groel and are the only upperclassmen on the backline.
In goal, Kris Alleyne, who had 36 career starts prior to this season, competed with Edelmann for the starting spot in camp.
Scott Bieda plays alongside two young attackers — Charalambides and sophomore Jules Heningburg.
On a team filled with freshmen and sophomores, that senior leadership is invaluable as Rutgers progresses through a season.
"We lean on our seniors all week long," said head coach Brian Brecht. "We have two great captains in Bieda and Sikora. We're certainly getting a lot out of our seniors in practice everyday during the week. We gotta continue to do that cause our senior class is gonna lead us to the games in May that we wanna play in."
As strong as leaders as the seniors have been off the field, they've been just as good during games as well with each other, arguably having the best seasons of their respective careers.
Bieda is on pace to surpass 60 points in a season for the first time, as he currently sits with 22 goals and 27 assists. Sikora has already tied a career high in points at 8 and is on track to have 40-plus groundballs for the second consecutive year.
On the back end, Rodgers tied a career-high with 10 caused turnovers and scooped 16 ground balls while helping the Knights climb to the No. 15 scoring defense in the nation.
In net, Alleyne is 6-2 with a career-best 8.17 goals against per game and a 57.1 save percentage since relieving Edelmann.
Even senior attacker Ryan Hollingsworth has embraced his role as a man-up specialist, scoring 5 of his 7 goals on the powerplay.
The combination of seniors having career years, sophomores and juniors having another year of experience under their belts and first-year players being added into the mix has been the formula for success this season for Rutgers.
It also helps that the team chemistry is equally as strong.
"Honestly, (these) guys are my friends. So I'm just hanging out with my buddies, and we all want the same thing. We all want to score goals, but ultimately, we all want to win," Sikora said. "I think we've definitely gotten closer this year than we have been in the past and I think that's helping out and showing on the field."
As the season winds down with only three guaranteed games remaining on the schedule, reality is beginning to set in for the seniors that their collegiate lacrosse careers are coming to a close.
While Bieda and Sikora will go on to play Major League Lacrosse, as each was drafted in the 2016 collegiate draft, they aren't ready to close this chapter of their careers just yet.
"I don't really want to talk about not playing," Sikora said with a smile. "But I know it's coming."
The end may be coming for Bieda, Sikora and the rest of the seniors, but the more the Knights win, the longer they can push off the conclusion to their careers on the Banks.
If Rutgers continues its strong play, that final game could come May 7 in the Big Ten Championship, or maybe even sometime between May 28-30 at the NCAA Lacrosse Championships.
"It definitely helps winning and you don't see the end of the tunnel cause you keep winning like that," Bieda said. "I've tried to enjoy these last few moments, not only in games but in practice. I love these guys, it's a sad moment, it's been a great four years at Rutgers. I can't thank everyone enough, they've made it a great environment for me and I'm sad it's coming to an end. I'm just gonna try to make the most of it and keep it rolling."