Rutgers host Maryland to open Big Ten play

<p>Senior midfielder Tori Prague said the Knights are excited to begin Big Ten play against Maryland.</p>

Senior midfielder Tori Prague said the Knights are excited to begin Big Ten play against Maryland.

The Rutgers women’s soccer team begins its Big Ten schedule starts at home Friday night 7 p.m. against Maryland.

The Scarlet Knights go into the match having amassed five wins, one loss and one draw.

The Knights are ranked No. 22 in the latest National Soccer Coaches Association of America (NSCAA) Poll, No. 21 according to Soccer America and No. 19 in the Top 25.

At the end of last year, Rutgers was rated as the fourth best team in the country by the NSCAA after making it all the way to the College Cup, the college soccer version of the Final Four.

With how the Knights finished the 2015 season, this current mark isn’t quite where the squad wants to be.

But there is no more effective manner to move up the rankings than winning conference battles.

Facing off against Big Ten foe Maryland is the perfect platform for Rutgers to commence its ascent to being one of the top teams in the nation.

The Terrapins enter Friday possessing two wins, five losses and one draw, as well as a current four-game losing streak.

Suffice to say, the women from College Park haven’t enjoyed the same non-conference success as the Knights, but that doesn’t mean that it will be an easy victory for Rutgers.

Last year, Maryland was only 6-12-1 on the season and a pitiful 1-9-1 in the conference, but the Terrapins still played the Knights to a tightly contested match.

Rutgers squeaked out a narrow 1-0 triumph, and the team expects a similarly competitive atmosphere this time around.

“Top to bottom in the conference every game is a battle,” said head coach Mike O’Neill. “Maryland is well coached, organized and we know they’ll come in ready to give us a good match.”

It’s commonplace to hear among Big Ten coaches, players and even fans that records are thrown out the window when two of the fourteen members face off.

That type of intensity renders it even more crucial for the Knights to be on their A-game.

The players are fully aware of this and seem pumped to get the second phase of the season started.

“We want to get in there and come out firing on all cylinders,” said senior goalkeeper Alana Jimenez. “Every match in the Big Ten is hard so we need to play well.”

Jimenez’s comments shed light on one of Rutgers’ main mantras, which is that the next game is the most important one.

O’Neill said he constantly stresses to his team the importance of staying focus and keeping away the distractions that would hinder the Knights from reaching their goals.

His and the entire program’s expectations for this season are lofty. They want to win a Big Ten championship and return to the College Cup.

If Rutgers follows this concentrated mindset and remains locked in on just the immediate future, it has all the resources in the world to achieve those heights.

It’s easy to see O’Neill’s effect on the players’ approach to the season as they all talk about taking it day-by-day and game-by-game.

The game that happens to be of the utmost importance right now is of course Maryland, and the team is prepared and ready to turn loose come Friday night.

“We’re so excited to start Big Ten play and want to make a statement on Friday,” said senior midfielder Tori Prager. “We’ve got to be willing to work for it because in order to be great, you’ve got to give 100 percent effort.”

In addition to going all out, the Knights will make tactical and strategic moves and incorporate that into their preparation.

“We learn the details and habits of opposing teams,” O’Neill said. “Ultimately though it’s about us and playing our best soccer.”

For updates on the Rutgers women's soccer team, follow @TargumSports on Twitter.

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