Rutgers returns to NCAA Tournament for fifth straight season

<p>Head coach Mike O’Neill will coach in his third straight NCAA Tournament as a head coach and Rutgers’ fifth consecutive this season after it earned an at-large bid to the tournament Monday afternoon. The Knights will host Harvard at 5 p.m. on Saturday.</p>

Head coach Mike O’Neill will coach in his third straight NCAA Tournament as a head coach and Rutgers’ fifth consecutive this season after it earned an at-large bid to the tournament Monday afternoon. The Knights will host Harvard at 5 p.m. on Saturday.

For the fifth consecutive season, the Rutgers women's soccer team is going dancing.

The Scarlet Knights (11-4-6, 4-2-5) will have a chance to build on their first ever College Cup appearance last season after receiving an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament on Monday. They’ll open their fifth consecutive appearance in the tournament by hosting Harvard Saturday night at 5 p.m.

“I was so excited for our team,” said senior midfielder Tori Prager moments after seeing Rutgers come up on the big screen at an NCAA Division I Tournament Selection Show watch party, held for the team at the Brown Recruiting Pavilion. “Being in the NCAA Tournament is nothing to take for granted and getting a spot in the top 64 is such a blessing.”

The announcement comes on the heels of heartbreak for the Knights. They fell in the final of the Big Ten Tournament for the second consecutive year Sunday, this time in a 2-1 defeat to Minnesota.

And while Sundays' loss certainly stung, spirits were high for Rutgers as it looked to put the setback in the past and look to the future.

“It hurt (Sunday), but you gotta bounce back from it,” said senior goalkeeper Alana Jimenez, who has held 10 clean sheets playing in place of first-team, all-Big Ten teammate Casey Murphy this season. “Our new season starts today, so you gotta look forward to a long run in the NCAA, so everything that happened before that is the past and we’re going to try to build off that and get a win.”

The seeding of the tournament allows the Knights to return to the friendly confines of Yurcak Field, where they lost just 1 of their 10 games there this year, holding opponents to just three goals in the process.

Rutgers stepped on the field in Piscataway just once in the last month, playing all but two of its last 10 matches away from home.

Not that it made any difference — the Knights avenged last season's final loss by upsetting defending champion No. 21 Penn State in Happy Valley in the opening round of the Big Ten Tournament. The team did the same to the third seed, No. 17 Northwestern, in the semifinals a week later in Minneapolis.

Though they came up short against the top-seeded No. 8 Golden Gophers in the final, the deep run in the competition is what essentially sealed Rutgers' place in the NCAA Tournament and proved it will be a challenge to any opponent it faces, regardless of where the match is played.

“There’s nothing like being home, but I also believe to win (the tournament), you have to win on the road,” said head coach Mike O’Neill, "So I think we’re battle ready and I think that showed in the Big Ten Tournament by us taking out the No. 1 seeds, so the opportunity to play at home is big because we love to play in front of the family, the fans, the school, but we’re also excited for the opportunity to get on the road.”

Looking at where the Knights are from, one wouldn’t be far off in seeing an eerily similar situation to last year — a team coming off a crushing loss, coming incredibly close to winning its first Big Ten Tournament title and entering the NCAA Tournament with a chip on its shoulder.

But Rutgers reached this point again, appearing to be headed for a rebuild, having it graduated both of its first team all-Big Ten centerbacks and saw the conference Goalkeeper of the Year redshirt her junior season to take part in the FIFA Under-20 World Cup with the United States Under-20 Women’s National Soccer team.

The Knights didn’t rebuild, though, they reloaded. Their back-up goalkeeper shone in goal, two freshmen centerbacks performed like veterans in the heart of their defense and first-year midfielder Nicole Whitley led the Big Ten in assists with nine in 18 games.

After returning to where it was a year ago, Rutgers has no reason to believe it can’t go even further.

“When you lose the players that you lose last year, you lose one of the best keepers in the country, there’s always going to be some questions. But we knew the type of character and talent we were bringing in,” O’Neill said. “I feel truly blessed that I get a chance to go out on the field with this group because they never stop amazing me ... I believe they have the ability to get on a good run.”

For updates on the Rutgers women’s soccer team, follow @briannnnf and @TargumSports on Twitter.

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