Rutgers making turnaround early in season

Prior to the 2019 season, the Rutgers volleyball team had not had a winning percentage above .250 in the four years that it had been a part of the elite Big Ten Conference. Against teams in that conference, the Scarlet Knights (6-3) had an all-time record of 1-99, and were coming off quite a dreadful end to the 2018 season, losing 20 straight matches to a list of schools that included Minnesota, Illinois, Penn State, Wisconsin and Nebraska. 

This is why on Aug. 30, when Rutgers was opening up its season against New Mexico in the Hampton Inn and Suites Northern Colorado Classic, it was considered to be the underdog. The Lobos were a team that had gone a respectable 15-15 last year. 

At the conclusion of the match, it was clear why the Knights were being identified as such. They had been swept, losing the first three sets played by a score of 17-25 in the first, 12-25 in the second and 22-25 in the third. 

That was Rutgers' first match of the season. With another one later that day against Northern Colorado, the Knights hoped to take what was learned from the loss and apply it to the match against their next opponent, with the desire to snap that 21-match losing streak that started almost a full calendar year ago. 

It didn’t happen.

Losing three sets to one, Rutgers dropped its record to 0-2 on the season with just one more match to play in the Northern Colorado Classic. The Knights had lost by only 6 points in the first set, and after winning the second by a score of 25-18, they showed their fight by keeping the scores close in the third and fourth sets, with a final score of 20-25 and 24-26, respectively. 

Nevertheless, Rutgers still wanted to come out of the tournament with a win, and it had a very good chance of earning one against Grand Canyon. The Antelopes had finished last year with a record of 11-17 overall and 4-12 in the Western Athletic Conference (WAC).

As it was with the first two matches of the tournament, the Knights failed to achieve this goal, and fell to 0-3 on the season after getting swept out of the Northern Colorado Classic. This was a low point for the program, as Rutgers, led by head coach CJ Werneke, were struggling to snap what was now a 23-match losing streak. 

Fast forward to a little less than a week after that, the Knights' struggles would finally end.

Sept. 6, Rutgers was scheduled to face Towson at 10:30 a.m., along with the Princeton just 4 hours after. 

After a 17-15 2018 season and a 3-0 start to the 2019 season that consisted of a nine-set sweep of the three teams the Knights faced in the Morgan State Invitational, Towson was looking to further extend its success against a team that was in the midst of an awfully rough patch of losing. The team certainly did that, but only into the first set. 

Rutgers, having been defeated in the opening set 25-14, came out with an impressive show of fortitude to outscore Towson in the remainder of the match. Along with an upset victory, this volleyball team was now in possession of something that would be much more impactful in the upcoming matches against the Princeton Tigers and Virginia, something that could be described as momentum. 

And whether it was the momentum or the seemingly underrated talent level of the athletes with the Knights, the women certainly used whatever they had in the tank to defeat both of these teams to close out Rutgers on Invitational and improve their record to 3-3 on the season.

While that record still may not spark the enthusiasm for many spectators that usually comes with watching a team compete at the level of the Big Ten Conference, it can be said with absolute certainty that it should.

With the victories over Towson, Princeton and the Cavaliers and the following nine-set sweep against New Hampshire, Quinnipiac and Colgate, Werneke and the Knights are setting out to show teams in the Big Ten, that they can do more than just play with teams of a high-caliber level. They can beat them as well. 

While time will only tell how the team will fare against teams in its conference (with play beginning on Sept. 25), Rutgers is optimistic about the season. 

After nine contests, the Knights shattered a 23-match losing streak and manufactured their longest winning streak since 2012. For each of those moments, this program hopes to defy at least some of the inauspicious predictions that are constantly associated with this team, and instead try to create their own narrative.

For updates on the Rutgers volleyball team, follow @TargumSports on Twitter.

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