Rutgers takes early exit in NCAA Tournament's 1st round

The Rutgers women’s soccer team’s 2018 season came to a conclusive and controversial finish on Friday night with a 1-0 defeat to No. 9 Duke University in the first round of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Tournament. 

The loss marked the first time the No. 25 Scarlet Knights (11-4-5, 7-1-3) did not advance past the first round of the tournament in the last four seasons under head coach Mike O’Neill.

On a rainy day in Durham, N.C., Rutgers' offensive struggles continued. The Knights went into the game coming off a shutout in the opening round of the Big Ten Tournament a week ago. They failed to score in back-to-back postseason games for the first time since 2015 when they beat No. 1 Virginia Tech on penalty kicks before getting shut out 2-0 by Penn State in the College Cup semifinals. 

One thing that did come in high quantities in this game was fouls, as both Rutgers and Duke combined for a total of 31 fouls. In a game with poor conditions that featured two defenses near the top of their respective conferences, the only goal of the day would come by the penalty. 

The Knights only managed two shots on goal for the game but could not get one past the Blue Devils' goalkeeper Brooke Heinsohn. Freshman goalkeeper Meagan McClelland put up four saves including a save where she just barely punched the ball out of the corner of the goal with her fist just before the end of the first period. 

Rutgers' defense, which had given the team the chance to win all season long, held Duke scoreless for more than 77 minutes. But with less than 13 minutes to go in regulation, a yellow card was issued to junior backfielder Tiernny Wiltshire for touching the shoulders of a Devils player. 

The yellow card set up Devils' forward Ella Stevens with a free kick on the right sideline just 30 yards away from goal. Stevens's kick took a bounce into the net for the first goal of the game.

Down 1-0 with three minutes left in the game, the Knights earned a scoring opportunity when a yellow card was issued to Duke. The free kick did not find the feet of any Rutgers players, and the clock on the Knights' season ultimately ticked down to 0. 

Even in a season where the team qualified for the NCAA Tournament for the seventh consecutive time, 2018 marks the program’s first year without a postseason win since 2011. It was also the last game for the senior class, who is also the last remnants of the 2015 team that went to the College Cup for the first time in program history. 

"For the seniors, we are so proud of them. They've raised the standards, they've raised the level of expectations when coming to Rutgers University, and they've left a mark on the program," O'Neill said, according to "For that, we will be forever grateful. I'm really proud of the effort everyone gave today. Really proud."

The 2018 season saw a historic streak of nine straight overtime games in which the Scarlet Knights went undefeated with a program record of 11 wins. By the end of the regular season, O’Neill and his team achieved the second seed in the Big Ten, the highest seed that any Rutgers program has achieved since joining the Big Ten in 2014, and achieved a national rank as high as 21. 

A number of young Knights established themselves as top-tier players in the Big Ten and even in the nation. Sophomore forward Amirah Ali elevated her game after she was the Big Ten Freshman of the Year last season. She was the team's leading goal scorer in the conference this season. 

McClelland quickly established herself as a top-five goalkeeper in the conference in her first collegiate season.

With the 2018 season now in the rearview mirror, O’Neill and the many young players on the roster will have an offseason to regroup and improve, as well as look ahead to adding new players to the program with recruitment coming up in the coming months. 

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

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