Judgement day has arrived for the Rutgers men’s lacrosse team. Despite an uneven and somewhat disappointing season so far, albeit based on high expectations, they have still done enough to have the opportunity to control its own destiny. The Scarlet Knights went 2-3 in Big Ten play and their upset road victory of then-no. 4 Ohio State ensured a fourth place finish, punching their ticket to the conference tournament in which they are hosting at Highpoint.com Stadium.
Rutgers will take on no. 1 seed Penn State in Thursday’s opening round of the Big Ten Tournament at 5 p.m. No. 2 seed John’s Hopkins takes on rival and no. 3 seed Maryland in the nightcap at 7:30 p.m. The winner’s will play in the championship game on Saturday night at 7:00 p.m. All of the games will air live on the Big Ten Network, as well as streamed live here.
It’s been a strange season for Rutgers, who enter Thursday’s contest with a 7-7 record overall and a RPI ranking of 22nd. All seven losses came against ranked foes. Their lone ranked win came against the Buckeyes, who are now ranked no. 15 and have an RPI of 13th. The Scarlet Knights held leads in the fourth quarter against three teams currently sitting in the top ten of this week’s Inside Lacrosse poll and RPI rankings, which are Syracuse, Maryland, and Penn State. That demonstrates how close they were to being in a much better position for an NCAA Tournament berth. Instead, they either win the Big Ten Tournament to earn an automatic berth or their season will be over.
The Scarlet Knights have three of the best players not only in the Big Ten, but in the country with Adam Charalambides (3.2 goals per game; 7th best nationally), Kieran Mullins (4.92 points per game; 12th best nationally) and Max Edelmann (14.83 saves per game; 1st nationally). That was reaffirmed on Tuesday when all three were named First Team All-Big Ten, which was a program best since joining the conference. Kyle Pless was also named Second Team All-Big Ten and has been a defensive stalwart all season.
Penn State is the highest scoring team in the nation, averaging 17.23 goals per game. They are led by Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year Grant Ament (71 assists; 88 points), First Team selection Mac O’Keefe (51 goals; 65 points) and Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Chris Sabia.
In Saturday’s meeting, Ament had 7 assists in the one goal victory over Rutgers, while O’Keefe had 5 goals and 2 assists. For the Scarlet Knights, Charalambides had 2 goals and 4 assists, while Mullins had just 1 goal and 1 assist. They’ll need their dynamic duo to at least keep pace with the stars of PSU, as Rutgers benefited from a career game from Tommy Coyne, who scored 6 goals on Saturday after only having 10 goals entering the season finale. Of course, an unsung hero could emerge as well. Don’t forget about Rutgers’ Ryan Gallagher either, who has had a solid season with 21 goals and 19 assists.
While it’s been frustrating to see Rutgers come so close multiple times to knocking off highly ranked teams this season, they should have confidence entering Thursday’s semifinal against no. 1 Penn State. The Scarlet Knights went toe to toe against the top ranked Nittany Lions last Saturday on the road. They held one goal leads twice against them in the fourth quarter and outshot PSU 46-37 in the game. The biggest issue was with face-off’s, as Penn State held an 18-11 advantage and is an area Rutgers needs to improve on in the rematch.
The optimistic view is that it was unrealistic for RU to beat the top team in the nation twice in less than a week. Thursday’s rematch is the far more important game. The Nittany Lions, who went undefeated in conference play and have lost just once this season, produced an average margin of victory of 7.3 goals against the other four Big Ten opponents. The Scarlet Knights came so close to beating Penn State on the road and now face them on their home turf. After playing so many close games this season and falling just short, Rutgers is hopefully due to finally breakthrough.
The group of seniors will leave Piscataway with the most wins of any class in program history, regardless of what happens on Thursday. However, this group has an opportunity to do something special this weekend. After several seasons of coming so close, but failing to making the NCAA Tournament, the road to doing so is laid out right in front of them. Now is time to put it all together and play its best lacrosse of the season. Head coach Brian Brecht wisely put together “a schedule that’s built for the postseason”. Will the stout competition they faced all season pay off in the long run? While Rutgers didn’t have as much success as they wanted this season, none of that matters this weekend. They can still accomplish what no other Rutgers athletic program has done yet, win a Big Ten title. In addition, they could earn an NCAA bid for men’s lacrosse for the first time in 15 years. It’s officially now or never time for this team.
For Big Ten Tournament ticket information and more, click here.