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Rutgers prepares for opening round of NCAA Tournament against La Salle

The Rutgers women’s soccer team has new life as it gets ready to host the first round of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Tournament this weekend with a 5 p.m. Saturday match at Yurcak Field. 

Almost two weeks since the team was eliminated by No. 10 Penn State (12-4-4,  6-2-3) — the eventual Big Ten Tournament champions — the No. 22 Scarlet  Knights (12-2-5, 6-2-3) will face the Atlantic 10 Conference Tournament champions La Salle (17-3-2, 9-0-1) in a rematch of the 2014 NCAA Tournament opening round.

Despite the familiarity of each team, Rutgers plans to prepare for the Explorers the same way it has for each team it has faced this season — especially considering both programs figure to be completely different from three years ago.

“I think for the most part we’re an entirely new team,” said senior midfielder and captain Christy Monroy. “So I don’t think (the last game) necessarily has that big of an impact. We’re a completely different program and I’m sure (La Salle is) too so we need to prepare in a totally new way.”

The Knights ended up winning that game back in 2014 by a score of 2-0 before losing to powerhouse Virginia 3-0 in the next round, putting an end to Rutgers’ season. 

This year, the Knights are hoping for a similar outcome against La Salle and then to make an even deeper run into the tournament just like in 2015 when they made it all the way to the program’s first College Cup.

“I mean this is obviously our last shot as seniors to make a run in the tournament,” Monroy said. “Having experienced the excitement and the competition in the College Cup two years ago, there is nothing we want more than to get back to that point.”

Even though Rutgers is ranked No. 22 nationally and had the country’s 11th best rating  percentage index (RPI), it still wasn’t enough to net the Knights a top-16 seed in the tournament.

The winner of Rutgers and La Salle will go on to play the winner of No. 7 West Virginia (15-3-2, 7-1-1) and Bucknell (12-8-0, 7-2-0). 

“I mean there are so many different factors that go into the seeding and where people go,” said head coach Mike O’Neill. “We just focus on what we can control and the fact that we’re in it and that we can come out every day and get better, that’s all we can do.”

Something the team can control is its defense. The Knights will enter the tournament leading the nation in goals allowed against (GAA) at .247 per game and second in team shutout percentage at .798 — shutting out their opponents in 15 out of 19 matches.

A key piece of Rutgers’ defense is junior defender and captain Kenie Wright, who injured her knee and left the game against Penn State in the opening round of the Big Ten Tournament. 

Despite the uncertainty surrounding Wright, O’Neill believes in the depth of his squad and is prepared to go without Wright if need be.

“(Kenie is) getting better but she’ll be a game-time decision,” O’Neill said. “But I’m not playing her unless she’s 100 percent. We believe in the depth of the team. (Sophomore defender) Tiernny Wiltshire is playing really well and if Kenie can’t go, we know Tiernny is gonna step in and do a very good job.”

For the Knights, this will be their sixth consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance, eighth in the last 10 years and 12th overall — an honor O’Neill is beginning to expect.

“The standard here is that we compete for championships every year,” he said. “To be a top  program you have to have consistency in all that you do. It speaks volumes to the players that have been here in the past and the current players.”

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

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