With the first regular season of head coach Jim McElderry's tenure now in the rearview mirror, the Rutgers men's soccer team now sets its sights on keeping its Big Ten Tournament hopes alive this weekend. First up on the docket is a date with the eighth-seeded Ohio State in the opening round play-in game this Saturday.
Much like the Scarlet Knights (7-7-3, 1-6-1), the Buckeyes (6-10-1, 1-6-1) powered through their out-of-conference schedule and then fell flat in Big Ten play. Ohio State matches Rutgers with a 1-6-1 conference record – edging the Knights only once through a head-to-head tiebreaker that resulted in a 1-0 victory over Rutgers at Yurcak Field in early October.
The Buckeyes couldn’t turn that win into any sort of momentum, finishing the regular season on a six-game losing streak. It got ugly at times, with the low-light being a 5-1 drubbing at the hands of Indiana last week.
As for the Knights, the struggles have come on the offensive side of the ball. Despite controlling long stretches of play in almost all of its games, Rutgers enters the postseason having scored only 1 goal in its last four matches.
That goal came late in its regular season finale against No. 16 Penn State, courtesy of a volley from true freshman midfielder Randy Arronis. Despite giving the Knights a late lead, the Nittany Lions (11-2-3, 6-1-1) quickly responded to force the game into overtime, where they would earn a 2-1 sudden death overtime victory.
Although it was a heartbreaking loss for Rutgers, the team took away an overall positive feeling from its performance, noting that a better finish would have them on the right side of a tournament matchup.
"We'll look to take our chances,” McElderry said after the Penn State loss. “A performance like this gives us a great chance to win any game."
They have some dangerous weapons to work with. The young players that McElderry brought onto the team in the offseason have helped to replace the loss of last year’s leading scorer Jordan Hall. The top two leading scorers on the team are true freshman midfielders: Pablo Ávila leads the Knights with 6 goals, while Jackson Temple is right behind him with 5.
They also have the defensive chops to keep any match competitive. True freshman goalkeeper Oren Asher has shown promise, finishing his first college season with a 1.42 goals-against average and three shutouts on the year.
The big unknown heading into postseason play is whether a young and inexperienced team can possibly put the pieces together and win a Big Ten postseason game despite only having beaten a conference foe once in Wisconsin in early October.
Rutgers has already surpassed its win total from last season (four) with seven victories this year.
Last year, the Knights, whose final game of their regular-season slate resulted in a loss to the Lions, took a 3-2 halftime lead in the first round of the conference tournament against the Badgers (3-10-4, 1-4-3). Rutgers, then a seventh seed, had scores from junior defender Brandon Golden, alumnus forward Miles Hackett and former Big Ten top goal scorer Hall.
The second-seeded Wisconsin went on to score 4 unanswered goals in the last 45 minutes en route to a 6-3 win. Noah Melick led all scorers with 2 goals while three other Badgers players added scores.
The new regime of McElderry and assistant coach Gavin Wyse has helped the team improve upon a tumultuous year under former head coach Dan Donigan in 2018. If the Knights can get their attack going and regain some of their early-season form, there’s a good chance that Rutgers will make a Cinderella run in the postseason.
“If we learn to put those (scoring opportunities) away and get teams to chase us a bit, I think we can make a run,” McElderry said.
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