Rutgers faces No. 9 Duke in NCAA Tournament's first round

After an early exit from the Big Ten Tournament, the Rutgers women’s soccer team will look to keep its season alive this Friday when it travels to Durham, N.C. to take on Duke in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament. 

The Scarlet Knights' bid in this year’s national tournament marks the program’s seventh straight year of qualifying. A win on Friday would mark the fourth straight year the team advanced past the first round. 

Head coach Mike O’Neill believes that the program’s consistency both during and prior to his tenure as head coach is a credit to the types of players that have come through the program. 

“To be a successful program, you need to be consistent in all that you do," O'Neill said. "This is the seventh year in a row so I think it’s a credit to the players that have been here, the players that are here now and a credit to my coaching staff.” 

Rutgers heads into Friday’s match against the No. 9 Blue Devils with a program record seven All-Big Ten selections on the roster. Sophomore forward Amirah Ali, senior backfielder Kenie Wright, junior midfielder Nicole Whitley, senior backfielder Madison Pogarch, junior backfielder Chantelle Swaby and freshman goalkeeper Meagan McClelland were all named to the Big Ten list. 

Against a tough Duke team, the Knights will have to get more efficiency from an offense that has been shutout in regulation in 6 of its past 7 games. The Devils' defense will have a tall order for Rutgers as it will need to figure out a way to get the ball past goalkeeper Brooke Heinsohn.

Heinsohn has been one of the most efficient goalkeepers in the country with 0.72 GAA, 55 saves and eight shutouts on the season. 

“Obviously Duke is a very good team, very well respected around the college soccer community, " Wright said. "So we’re just gonna watch a lot of film and continue to play our game.”  

Rutgers last faced Duke in the opening round of the 2009 NCAA Tournament, in a game that it won 2-0 to advance. O’Neill was on that team’s coaching staff as an assistant to former head coach Glen Crooks, and now nine years later will look to lead the program to another opening round upset over the Devils. 

“This is the circle that I am in, I know the coaching staff very well," O'Neill said. "I know a couple of players that have played for me that play there, so we know that it's a quality opponent.” 

Offensively, Duke features one of the top strikers in the ACC conference in Kayla McCoy. A first team All-ACC selection in 2018, McCoy leads Duke in scoring with 10 goals. Containing McCoy will be the Knight’s key on defense.

Rutgers has a player with 10 goals herself on the season in Ali. Ali, who missed time in the Big Ten Tournament game against Minnesota after taking a tackle to the knee, has been held scoreless in four straight games. 

She has played far more minutes than usual this season due to the team’s record breaking nine-game overtime streak and 11 overtime games overall. Fatigue may have been a factor in Ali’s decline over recent weeks. 

The team has since had a week and a half off and with nearly two weeks removed from their last match when they take the field against the Devils on Friday, leaving Ali and her teammates a lot of time to rest. 

“The days off was pretty good for us especially having so many overtime games. I feel like our bodies just needed rest,” Ali said. “I’m just gonna go hard on this game, knowing that it's playoffs every game could be your last.” 

The Knights are 1 of 6 Big Ten teams to qualify for the tournament this year alongside conference champion Minnesota, Penn State, Wisconsin, Ohio State and Northwestern. They may not be completely done with Big Ten play yet in 2018, but it will take a win against Duke on Friday to reach any of those matchups. 

“I think we’re going in with a little bit of grit and vengeance because obviously we wanted to play in Indiana this past weekend and that didn’t go our way," said junior midfielder Taylor Aylmer. "So obviously we’re just doing everything possible to make sure we get the outcome we want in this tournament.” 

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

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