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Rutgers heads to Illinois for two Big Ten matches

After a thrilling 2-0 win against Maryland last weekend, the Rutgers women’s soccer team will once again hit the road and travel to the state of Illinois to take on two more Big Ten foes this weekend.

Home for a brief weekend, the No. 12 Scarlet Knights (7-0-1, 1-0-0) will have a short week to practice before heading off to Evanston, Illinois where they will play Northwestern under the lights this Friday at 8 p.m. After that, the team will take a three hour bus ride down to Champaign to face Illinois on Sunday afternoon.

Despite two games in one weekend, make no mistake, Rutgers is taking it game by game.

“The idea here is it’s one game at a time,” said head coach Mike O’Neill. “So the only thing we focus on here right now is Northwestern and we know that they’re going to come out, they’re going to be organized. Every game that we’ve played with them since we’ve arrived in the Big Ten has been a very close game so we don’t expect anything different.”

Once Northwestern is finished, then it’s all about Illinois, according to coach O’Neill.

With Big Ten competition from here on out for the Knights, the energy level and motivation of the team shouldn’t be a problem.

“I think that every Big Ten game is a great game no matter who you’re playing or what their record was last year or what their record was coming into the game,” said sophomore midfielder Nicole Whitley. “Every Big Ten game is a battle, and I think that it’s a different atmosphere when we get into conference play.”

Rutgers has been steadily climbing the rankings these past couple of weeks and a huge piece of that can be attributed to the stellar defense showcased early on in the season.

Even after losing standout defender Erin Smith last year due to graduation, the Knights’ defensive unit remains as the only group in women’s Division I soccer yet to give up a goal. But it’s not just the defense.

“We put a lot of emphasis on defense, not just as a backline but as the entire team from the forwards all the way to the backs,” said senior defender Courtney Norton. "So for us right now we’re really happy and we want to keep that going.”

Although the defense gets most of the credit and a lot of the attention, the whole team deserves recognition.

And when the forwards and midfielders aren’t helping out on defense, they are scoring goals. Rutgers has outscored opponents 22-0 in eight games so far — averaging almost three goals per game.

“The offense has done a really good job of picking up what we’re doing at practice and applying it to a game,” Whitley said. “I think that we’ve definitely been putting away our chances that we’re getting and that our offense is doing a really good job of getting forward and finding each other — especially with the underclassmen and the upperclassmen I think that we came onto the field and we were just one team.”

This Rutgers team has a solid mix of both underclassmen and upperclassmen not only on the team, but on the field as well. In fact, 15 of the 22 goals scored have come from underclassmen.

Some of those underclassmen have even stepped up in some leadership roles on the team as well.

“Soccer has no age,” O’Neill said. “Experience comes in many different ways, experience comes in your time here, but it also comes in the experience you have before you get here or what you were a part of last year, so those players have taken ownership as well — but it’s all led by our captains.”

O’Neill has also been impressed with his team’s mentality of coming to practice every day and getting better.

“We have a lot of players that know it’s their time to shine now,” Norton said. “We just come together and work together as a whole and we just like to work hard.”

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

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