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Rutgers reflects on tumultuous season

<p>Head coach Dan Donigan said this season was difficult and applauded his team for remaining competitive until the end. He said he wouldn't wish it on his worst enemy.</p>

Head coach Dan Donigan said this season was difficult and applauded his team for remaining competitive until the end. He said he wouldn't wish it on his worst enemy.

Last Saturday, the Rutgers men’s soccer team concluded its season with a 2-1 loss to Michigan in the play-in game of the Big Ten Tournament. Although the Scarlet Knights (1-13-2) only managed to garner one win throughout the long season, their record doesn’t give the team justice.

Right off the bat, injuries to Rutgers were almost certain to influence how the season would go. Senior midfielder Erik Sa, a key contributor in the midfield during the 2015 season, injured his ankle, taking a redshirt year and leaving the team without a talented veteran. 

Big Ten All-Freshman team selection Brian Hawkins contributed tremendously in his freshman campaign, but was also out for the year due to an ACL injury.

Add in an injury to junior forward Miles Hackett’s that kept him on the sidelines all season with senior forward Rayon Gibbs and junior forward Dante Perez playing hurt at times, and what was once a team looking to repeat its success from the season prior turned into a slow offensive team, who looked for its first conference win for almost four months of the season.

The season was tough, said head coach Dan Donigan. But his team battled, and he gives them credit for never giving up and dealing with the season’s tough circumstances.

“It was very very difficult, I would never wish it upon my worst enemy or any colleague of mine,” Donigan said. “But at the same time, I give the guys a lot of credit. If there’s one thing you can applaud for this group, they played till the very end. Yes, they had inconsistent performances here and there. There are a lot of reasons for that as well, maybe some fatigue, but for the most part, these guys really worked hard and tried to do everything they can within there abilities.”

The Knights were ranked No. 25 in the preseason NSCAA Coaches poll. With hopes of slowly moving themselves higher and higher in rank each week, the instant top competition posed Rutgers with a challenge that was too tall.

The Knights opened their season against then-No. 7 Creighton. Two days later then-No. 20 Denver came into town, defeating Rutgers 1-0. The Knights then traveled to then-No. 20 Charlotte, only to still have four ranked teams waiting for a battered Rutgers team. Then-No. 4 Maryland defeated the Knights in a double-overtime thriller before then-No. 4 Indiana came to the Banks, leaving with only a draw to show. A nail-biter of a game against then-No. 15 FGCU teased Rutgers, but it had to play seven more games before getting the results it wanted.

The tough schedule was taken on by Donigan in hopes of gaining solid competition to get ready for the NCAA tournament. But besides playing close in six out of the seven games, it only lifted the Knights' spirits up to have them crushed.

And although the tough completion can have a lasting effect on a team’s postseason play, Donigan revealed he will have to make sure it is in his team's best interest to schedule what was one of his toughest schedules in his career and his toughest on the Banks.

“I do want a tough schedule, a good schedule,” Donigan said. “We’ll definitely look at that and it may not be as tough as this year was. It’s a risk because you don’t know how good teams will be. Certainly this year was one of the toughest schedules I’ve ever coached, so we may want to consider backing off a little bit, but what does that mean? It's hard. It’s a risk factor no matter how you look at it.”

The 2016 season does have some positives to negate the majority of negatives. Senior goalkeeper David Greczek now holds the all-time saves record at Rutgers after placing No. 2 in the nation in saves this season.

Perez proved to be a lethal offensive threat, scoring five of his teams 16 goals. And Tim McQuaid, an impressive freshman from Roswell, Georgia, proved that he belongs in a competitive Big Ten conference as he was named to the conference’s All-Freshman team.

Despite the team’s lack of scoring and shortage in shots on goal, many players believe that they worked together and never gave up.

“I think despite the season we had, I’m proud of our guys that stayed committed throughout the whole season,” said junior defender Niel Guzman. “And (I’m) happy to play along with a bunch of guys I looked up to and look forward to the future.”

The fact that the team was always there for each other the whole season, shows the pros of forming close bonds through a tough and rigorous season.

“We don’t have guys like this all the time,” Perez said. “I know everyone battles day in and day out, and everyone pushes each other to do better and we’re all here for each other at the end.”

Although six seniors will leave the Banks this May, Donigan is looking forward to the offseason and is excited to get some of his players back that mean so much to this team. 

“Every year in the offseason there’s a lot to evaluate, but I’m just looking at the positives of getting some guys back and guys healthy,” Donigan said. “I’m really excited about getting those guys back in the mix and just having a healthier squad.”

The team also truly believes this upcoming season can be a huge turnaround from the 2016 season. The season before the Knights proved they could contend with any team in the country, and this year with all of the injuries they’ve proven to be a vital contender in the Big Ten.

“We proved last year that we can play any team and we have some guys coming back next year,” Guzman said. “We’ve proven it before we have something to prove next season. Every year we look to win the Big Ten and after that go far in the tournament, but I trust in our squad next year.”

Despite the tough season that ended with only one win, the results that Rutgers received were in a lot of players' minds not what they deserved. The upcoming season's goal is simple.

Just win.

“The toughest part was the results, I don’t think in the end we got what we deserved,” Perez said. “I think that we definitely were better than what we got. I think that next year we need to get what we deserve — we need to win.”

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

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