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Rutgers can get closer to topping Big Ten with wins

While Nebraska sits atop the Big Ten, this week will see some other action at the top of the conference. The Rutgers women's soccer team is currently the frontrunner in a three-way tie for second place with Wisconsin and Minnesota, and it will have the chance to create some distance as it travels to the Midwest to face both teams later this week.

After tying the Cornhuskers in their first Big Ten matchup, the Scarlet Knights (6-1-3, 2-0-1) clutched out a pair of overtime wins in back-to-back weeks. The team will get on a plane for the first time this season for a nationally televised Thursday night game against the Badgers, before visiting the Gophers on Sunday.

The last time Rutgers played Wisconsin it was then-freshman forward Amirah Ali that delivered the game winning shot in overtime. She is now coming off back-to-back games in which she did just that against other Big Ten opponents. 

Head coach Mike O’Neill praised how Ali has handled her early success this season. 

“She comes out everyday to get better and she’s one of the best goal scorers in the country so whoever we’re playing her mentality never changes,” O’Neill said.

O’Neill will also have the luxury of going into this one with the most complete roster he’s had for any game this year. 

Junior forward Tierney Wiltshire and freshman forward Emily Harrigan have both been cleared for game action when the team faces the Badgers Thursday night. 

“I feel good … I was just focusing on my technical and tactical game just spending a lot of time in the film room with my teammates,” Wiltshire said. “I think I bring a type of composure and just a raw sense of intensity, and mostly just a helping hand for my teammates.”

The Knights will be at full strength for the first time since pre-season, minus one player whose season is essentially over. 

Junior forward Carina Hendley will be having surgery on Thursday to repair a torn ACL, but her teammates will be keeping her in mind Thursday night and she will be there in spirit watching the game live on the BTN, O'Neill said.

One player that has been a key contributor for Rutgers' past two wins is sophomore forward Nneka Moneme, who made her first start against La Salle and has started every game since. She has already surpassed her goals scored total from a year ago with 3 goals in just the past four matches. 

“I’m just focusing on the details and doing whatever I can to help the team out. So it helps just knowing the other team and playing against their weaknesses, and just trying to get the goal every single time as forwards do,” Moneme said.

Moneme and Ali have now scored in back-to-back games and have formed one of the conference’s most potent young offensive tandems at the front end. The two sophomores share a chemistry that dates back to last year when they were roommates, and Moneme claims that her chemistry with Ali is a big factor in the success they’ve had up front. 

“That connection really helps us on the field,” Moneme said. “(Ali) has been doing really well … she scored more goals this year than she did all last season so I think she’s off to a great start.”

The trip marks the longest distance the team has traveled this year and the first time this season it will travel by plane. But, this year marks the first time under O’Neill’s tenure that the team will be separated, as some players will have to stay behind, while the rest of the team travels for the game. 

The traveling coupled with the significance of the games will make for a critical couple of days that may go a long way in determining the course of this season. O’Neill and his team share a tempered enthusiasm for the importance of the trip. 

“They watch the standings, they know where they are, so at this stage of the game they know what they need to do and the importance of getting points and climbing the ladder,” O’Neill said.

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

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