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Senior defender leads Knights in NCAA Tournament after impressive regular season

<p>Senior defender Erin Smith led Rutgers back into the NCAA Tournament as its captain with a regular season worthy of a First Team All-Big Ten selection. Now, she's trying to lead them to a national championship.</p>

Senior defender Erin Smith led Rutgers back into the NCAA Tournament as its captain with a regular season worthy of a First Team All-Big Ten selection. Now, she's trying to lead them to a national championship.

Currently set to play in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, the Rutgers women’s soccer team is firing on all cylinders.

The Scarlet Knights (12-4-6, 4-2-5) have accomplished a lot on their way to this point, most notably reached the Big Ten Conference championship game despite being the seven seed going into the postseason tournament.

In order to achieve these feats, the Knights had to have exceptional performances from individual players all year long and while it was easy to observe that occur from a fan or coach’s point of view, it's always extra special when others notice as well.

At the culmination of the Big Ten regular season this year, the league office announced its postseason honors with Rutgers having six players recognized.

Senior forward Madison Tiernan was named to the All-Big Ten second team and freshman midfielder Nicole Whitley was listed on the third team, while Whitley, Taylor Aylmer, and Amanda Visco earned spots on the All-Freshman Team.

Senior defender Erin Smith, meanwhile, earned the highest honor of all the Knights by making it on the All-Big Ten first team.

“It’s such a huge honor to be named on the first team,” Smith said. “I want to thank my teammates because without them I would never have been able to reach this goal of mine.”

Smith, a team captain, earned her first-career all-conference recognition and is the fifth First Team All-Big Ten honoree in program history.

The Medford Lakes, New Jersey, native has started in 67 consecutive matches on the back line, played in 82 matches overall and logged more than 6,800 minutes.

Named to the Big Ten Women’s Soccer Preseason Honors List, Smith has started all 18 contests in 2016 and has played the full-time in 14 of those games.

In the eyes of many, including the coaching staff, Smith has also been the clear leader of a superb defense this season.

“Erin brings a ton of leadership to our really young back line,” said head coach Mike O’Neill. “Her experience is so important because our other starting defenders are two freshmen and a sophomore and she has taught them how to come out every day and get better as a unit.”

The statistical evidence supports that Smith has done a great job commanding the defense, as the Knights have secured 13 shutouts this season and boasts a goals-against average of 0.77.

As one of the captains of the team, the senior couldn’t be happier about the school she chose to play for.

“Rutgers represents New Jersey, which is where I always envisioned myself playing,” Smith said. “It’s only a 45 minute drive for my family and that means a lot to me because I love seeing them at every one of my home games.”

In addition to being very family oriented, Smith is quite the competitor and has dreamed of championships from an early age.

She started playing soccer at five years old and was immediately hooked, although she also partook in several other sports, including her second love — lacrosse.

Smith was a varsity star on both fields during her high school career at Shawnee High, but only played soccer in the off-season.

“For a while I really wanted to play both soccer and lacrosse in college, but I only played club for soccer and that’s where I got looks from coaches,” Smith said. “Once I realized that soccer was in more of my future I really began to focus on it.”

After coming to the Banks, Smith made an immediate impact on the team, starting in 14 games as a freshman including the postseason.

During her sophomore year, she started at right back in all 20 of the Knights’ contests, logging 1,656 minutes of game action. It was Smith’s junior season where she really found her groove on the offensive side though, as she scored two goals and notched three assists.

“Erin is one of the best attacking backs in the country,” O’Neill said. “She’s got great pace, good vision and excellent one-on-one ability.”

As a senior Smith hasn’t racked up any points, but she has led to countless counterattacks that gave Rutgers scoring opportunities.

Usually the last person in the line of defense, the captain will typically steal the ball from an opposing forward and proceed to dribble up the field leaving others in the dust.

Smith is a huge factor in why the Knights are still alive in the NCAA tournament and will hopefully be a main contributor in the team moving to the next round.

“I want us to win so we can get closer to a championship,” said Smith. “I want us to get a title for Jersey because it would mean so much to be able to win one for my home state.”

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

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