Rutgers splits games in Michigan against Wolverines, Spartans

<p>Sophomore midfielder Nicole Whitley</p>

Sophomore midfielder Nicole Whitley

Following its first instance of real Big Ten adversity this season, the Rutgers women’s soccer team had a bounce-back game versus Michigan State Sunday, winning the matchup by a score of 3-1 Sunday after falling 3-2 to Michigan Thursday.

The loss was the only time that the No. 19 Knights have allowed more than two goals in a match in all of 2016.

After going through such a tough experience in Ann Arbor, Rutgers (8-2-2, 3-1-1) was looking forward to a chance at redemption in East Lansing.

“The players responded so well from the opening whistle,” said head coach Mike O’Neill. “We were more efficient in our positioning and in our finishing.”

The match started off with each team exchanging blows as the Knights fired the first shot on goal with a header on net from senior midfielder Tori Prager in the eighth minute, but Michigan State (5-6-1, 2-3-0) recovered, quickly garnering two straight corners less than six minutes later.

In the 17th minute, the first score was achieved when junior forward Colby Ciarrocca knocked in the remains of freshman midfielder Nicole Whitley’s free kick.

After Whitley’s cannon caromed off the crossbar, Ciarrocca swung her leg into the air in a pseudo bicycle kick fashion in order to make clean contact with the flying ball.

A concise smack was enough to drive it by the Spartan goalkeeper and give Rutgers the early lead.

The rest of the first half was relatively uneventful as the 1-0 score held up through the first 45-minute frame, but the second half started off with a bang.

Just five minutes in, Whitley delivered a sweet pass across the top of the 18-yard box to senior midfielder Jennifer Andresen. Once in control, Andresen faked like she was dribbling left and immediately juked to the right, completely shaking her defender in the process.

After the impressive move, she followed it with a shot of even more finesse, curving a shot around the goalie and into the top right of the net.

Andresen’s first goal of the season extended the Knights’ lead to 2-0 and gave the team important insurance to stay ahead for the remainder of the game.

The Wyckoff, New Jersey, native’s score proved especially necessary given that freshman defender Madison VanDyke put Michigan State on the board, cutting into the Rutgers advantage.

That mark would not hold up for too much longer regardless as Whitley peppered in a goal in the 62nd minute giving her four points on the match.

Prager and senior forward Erica Murphy set up the play and each earned an assist for their contributions.

That gave Prager three points for the day, which many would consider a fantastic game, but Whitley, the freshman phenom, stole the show.

With her two assists Sunday, Whitley moved up to nine on the season, which simultaneously made her the single season record holder for a freshman in Knights history and first in the Big Ten conference.

“There’s a lot on the plate of a collegiate athlete, especially a freshman,” O'Neill said. “Being consistent on the pitch is massive and Nicole has done just that.”

Rutgers is tied for third in the current conference standings with only Michigan and Penn State ahead of it.

The Knights will have an opportunity to surpass those squads when they play Purdue at home Thursday night.

Sunday was a victory to be content about though for Rutgers as the team returned to its winning ways.

“We’re very proud of everyone’s effort as we got great performances up and down from the whole team,” said O’Neill. “Within a group’s success, you have to have people stand out and capitalize on a few moments.”

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

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