Rutgers opens NCAA Tournament campaign at home against Harvard

After surprising many by reaching the Big Ten Championship — although falling to Minnesota once there — the Rutgers women’s soccer team earned a home game in the NCAA Tournament.

Battling in a competitive conference, the Scarlet Knights' (11-4-6, 4-2-5) upcoming match will be the team’s first against a non-conference foe since Sept. 11.

Rutgers will face Harvard this Saturday at 5 p.m. on the Knights’ home turf at Yurcak Field.

The Crimson (10-3-3, 5-0-2) enter the match riding a three-game winning streak as well and haven't lost a contest since Sept. 7.

One of the key reasons why the Crimson have achieved so much success this season is because of senior forward Margaret Purce, a player who Rutgers head coach Mike O’Neill calls one of the best in the country.

Purce, the Ivy League’s Offensive Player of the Year, has compiled a remarkable 28 points this year through her dominance as both a scorer and a passer, totaling 12 goals and four assists.

The star forward isn’t producing on her own, though, as fellow senior striker Rachel Garcia has also had a great season.

Garcia has scored six goals and assisted on five more, giving her a point total of 17 as well as multiple Ivy League Player of the Week awards and a Second Team All-Conference recognition.

“Harvard is a good team and will definitely present a challenge for us,” O’Neill said. “They have some special players and are very well coached.”

In addition to Harvard’s two spectacular forwards receiving honors, head coach Chris Hamblin was named Ivy League Coach of the Year.

Despite the incredible season the Crimson has had, the Bostonians will be the visitors on Saturday.

Because of an unexpected run to the Big Ten title match, the Knights get to play the NCAA First Round in New Jersey and are excited to represent Rutgers on the pitch.

“Every home game has a great atmosphere,” said freshman midfielder Nicole Whitley. “It’s better to play in front of friends, family and for the school.”

Saturday’s match at Rutgers has also given the Knights the advantage of only focusing on practice and preparation without the distractions of travel. The players have gotten a chance to rest their legs and move on from the loss to Minnesota.

“This week the coaching staff and I discussed how we needed to bring the team’s spirits back up again after losing in the Big Ten final, but we didn’t have to address them at all because the senior leaders did it for us,” O’Neill said. “I’m very impressed with our veterans and they’ve inspired one of my favorite sayings, which is that coaches keep good teams accountable, but captains keep great teams accountable.”

The captains on the team have done an excellent job all year as well as this week in keeping the focus on the task at hand.

The Knights are concentrated on playing together as a unit as well as putting emphasis on their performance and not catering the style to any other squad.

Rutgers will look to hold onto its possession as often as possible, but also move forward aggressively into attack. An execution of that kind of complete game plan is how the Knights have excelled throughout the Big Ten Tournament and they will look to replicate that versus Harvard on Saturday.

“In the tourney, we were playing our best soccer,” Whitley said. “We have to bring that type of energy and mentality in our next game to say successful.”

Supplementing maximum effort and inner focus is the coaching staff’s dedication to finding the proper tactics.

O’Neill and the team have been watching video of Harvard all week as well as examining tape of the Knights’ action in order to formulate the best strategy for victory on Saturday.

Training has also contributed heavily to the Knights preparation to face the Crimson, as they are going all in for the last stretch of the year.

“Practice has had awesome energy and I think we’re ready to go,” said junior forward Colby Ciarrocca. “It’s the third and final part of our season, so if we stay positive we’ll come out on top.”

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

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