Ali does it again in Rutgers season opener, will it spark another historic streak?
Lightning struck twice on a stormy opening night as junior forward Amirah Ali hit both of the Rutgers women's soccer team's goals to defeat Central Connecticut in a 2-1 overtime victory.
Severe lightning storms sent flocks of Busch Campus geese flying over Yurcak Field throughout Thursday's first two halves. Then came the rain, just in time for overtime.
Ali and the Scarlet Knights (1-0) picked up right where they left off to open 2019 after a 2018 season that saw a historic streak of nine straight overtime games. Ali hit the golden goal in a wet overtime period just as she did three times last year.
"With the early goal for the other team, everyone just started to get so frantic, but as a team we just had to bring it back together and calm ourselves down," Ali said. "I just knew I had to keep the pressure on (the Blue Devils) … It's raining, the ball's skipping and I believe the goalie and I just ran into each other. That's how I scored (the winning goal)."
For head coach Mike O'Neill, now in his sixth year at the helm, it was an opening night win that was both familiar and unfamiliar. O'Neill saw this script several times last year, but his teams have dominated 4 of his last 5 season openers by a combined score of 14-3, with a scoreless tie against Syracuse being his only non-win.
"They're a very good team," O'Neill said of the Blue Devils (0-1). "They lost two games last year and one was the NCAA (tournament). They're a conference champion, they're well coached and we knew it was going to be a hard game. That's what we wanted. The conditions are what the conditions are, so there's many things that can happen in a game and for us we're just focused on the task at hand."
Last year, after an Ali golden goal delivered Rutgers its first conference win against Iowa, O'Neill said it was a moment that could be the start of something for his team. It was only the start of the team's dramatic ascension to the top of the Big Ten, as they went undefeated over a nine-game stretch of matches that all went to overtime.
Is this Ali-delivered moment the start of a similar streak for the Knights in 2019? Can they even go so far as to break last year's record and take an overtime streak into a double-digit number of matches?
"All these overtime games are definitely very nerve-racking and stressful," said senior back and 2019 Women's World Cup participant Chantelle Swaby. "But it was just a great win for us to have going into our season."
This year Swaby will be a leader on a unit that was a big reason for team's streak a year ago. A stout defense that seldom gave up any goals set up several golden opportunities for the often-clutch Ali, who O'Neill claimed plays bigger in bigger moments.
In addition to Swaby, the defense returns two key freshmen contributors from last year that now bring a year of Big Ten experience into their sophomore seasons. Sophomore goalkeeper and reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Year Meagan McClelland will anchor the defense in the box. Her longtime teammate and friend, sophomore back Shea Holland, will look to be a force in the backfield and give Ali the chance to "walk it off" in extra time throughout the season.
The blueprint is there. A chance at making more overtime history, while not ideal for O'Neill and his team, exists within the construction of this roster and will be tested right away as Rutgers prepares to take on Fordham on Sunday.
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