Coming off their first #1 ranking in program history, the Rutgers Scarlet Knights are off to an 8-0 start and have set the lacrosse world on fire.
Following the graduation of players such as Scott Bieda, Kris Alleyne, and Zach Sikora, and season ending injuries in the pre-season to Adam Charalambides and Christian Trasolini, expectations were a little tampered but Rutgers has turned those expectations on its head. Lets take a deeper look at why Rutgers has had so much success this season.
Schedule: One of the biggest knocks against the Scarlet Knights last season was their weak non-conference schedule, and while the schedule did not change too much, the teams on the schedule are much improved. An early season 16-8 win against St. Johns looks a lot better following St. Johns close 9-8 loss against nationally ranked Syracuse, and their 12-10 win against Army looks a whole lot better when the Black Knights defeated the Orange in the Dome a few weeks ago.
One of the big additions to the schedule from last year was Brown University. Brown was coming off a trip to the final four and returned last seasons Tewaaraton Trophy winner in Dylan Malloy. The Scarlet Knights were able to beat Brown 13-11 for a nice non-conference win.
Whenever people talked about reasons for Rutgers not making the tournament last season, losses to Stony Brook and Princeton were often pointed to. Well, Rutgers was able to make up for one of those losses this year when they demolished then #14 Story Brook 17-4. Rutgers completed their redemption tour on Wednesday when they smacked Princeton 16-11, a win that looks better after Princeton defeated Johns Hopkins 18-7. A 10-6 win over NJIT on Friday was much closer than expected but it was what good teams do. They win when their backs are against the wall.
The Scarlet Knights will take on Delaware Friday, before beginning a brutal Big Ten schedule. Ohio State knocked off the number one team in America this weekend, Maryland is a national power and the same can be said for Johns Hopkins. Penn State is off to an equally hot start and is the #2 team in the nation and Michigan is 7-1 including a win over then #10 Penn.
If Rutgers is able to escape the Big Ten gauntlet undefeated, they will easily be the front runner for the national championship.
Offense: Last season, the offense was totally run through the attack unit where the trio of Scott Bieda, Adam Charalambides, and Jules Heningburg combined for 183 points, or 57% of the Scarlet Knights offense. Their top leading midfielder scorer was Christian Trasolini who finished with only 21 points. This years offense is much more balanced. This years attack trio of Heningburg, Kieran Mullins, and Connor Murphy has combined for 78 points, only 48% of the Scarlet Knights total offense. The midfield unit of Casey Rose, Jeff George, Christian Scarpello, Christian Mazzone, and Chad Toliver have combined for 72 points and Rose, the leading midfield scorer, already has 18 points on the season.
The balance on the offense has allowed Rutgers to not just depend on their attack to do everything. When the midfielders are involved on offense and drawing slides and burying open shots, it opens lanes up for the attackmen.
As a unit, the Scarlet Knights are averaging 13 goals a game on the season and are turning it over an average of about 15 times a game, which isn't awful considering Rutgers likes to play a high tempo offense.
Defense: Easily the biggest improvement the Scarlet Knights have made this season is on the defensive end of the field. Last season, the Scarlet Knights gave up 9.88 goals per game and goalie Kris Alleyne was at a 51.7% save percentage. This year, the Scarlet Knights are giving up only 7.25 goals per game and Max Edelmann is saving shots at a 58% clip. As a unit, they have forced 89 turnovers and on his podcast, lacrosse analyst Quint Kessenich said that defensemen Michael Rexrode is playing like an All American.
Besides Rexrode, close defensemen Chris Groel and Alex Bronzo and long stick midfielder Kyle Pless combine for 25 caused turnovers and just all around solid defense. They rarely get beat, and if they do they know they have a goalie behind them who is going to make the saves.
Face-Offs: Lacrosse is a sport unlike any other in the sense that every time you score, you have the chance to get the ball right back, creating a “"make it-take it” kind of situation, and Rutgers has improved dramatically in that category this year. Last season, the Scarlet Knights faced off at a 48% clip, and that is not very good. This season, lead Face-Off man Joe Francisco is facing off at a 58% clip and has grabbed 52 ground balls. That 10% improvement has led to more possessions for the offense and more importantly, given the defense time to breathe and catch their breath.
Well, there you have it. Noticeable improvement in those four categories are what have helped propel the Scarlet Knights to number one. The great thing about it as well, is the fact that the Scarlet Knights are here to stay. George, Groel, and Murphy are the main contributors that the Scarlet Knights are losing to graduation, but besides that, everyone returns. With a present that is so exciting, and a future so bright, these Scarlet Knights are definitely a team to look out for.