The Rutgers men’s lacrosse team will face no. 8 seed Lehigh on Saturday, May 15 at 2:30 p.m. in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. The game will take place at Klockner Field in Charlottesville, Virginia and will air live on ESPNU.
The Scarlet Knights will be making the program’s first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2004 and tenth all-time. They last won an NCAA Tournament game to advance to the Quarterfinals in 1990 when they defeated Virginia 7-6.
Rutgers enters Saturday’s first round game against Lehigh after a second place finish in the Big Ten this spring. The accolades received this season include Brian Brecht winning Big Ten Coach of the Year, Colin Kirst was named Specialist of the Year, and Shane Knobloch was named Freshman of the Year In addition, there were six All-Big Ten Selections overall, which is a program best. Connor Kirst joined his brother Colin and Adam Charalambides on the First Team, while Jaryd Jean-Felix, Kieran Mullins and Ethan Rall were named to the Second Team.
Lehigh is 10-1 and have the fourth highest scoring offense in the nation with a 14.91 goals per game average. Rutgers is fifth at 14.82 goals per game. A key difference is that RU is 4th in the nation in offensive efficiency at 37.2% and Lehigh is 14th at 33.0%. If that held true in this matchup, the slight difference in efficiency could prove to be a deciding factor in the outcome.
While both teams have potent offenses, there are several significant differences in regard to strengths and weaknesses.
Lehigh is first in the nation in both adjusted face-off percentage at 73.0% and averages the most ground balls per contest at 42.91. Rutgers is not strong in either area, as they are ranked 51st in adjusted face-off percentage at 42.1% and are 40th with just 29.64 ground balls per game.
Mike Sisselberger is a key figure, as he is one of the best in the game with an 80% winning percentage on face-offs. This has been the Achilles heel for the Scarlet Knights in recent seasons. They shouldn’t be expected to win half the face-offs in this game, but they can’t lost 90% either. Limiting offensive possessions of Lehigh is key or it could be too much to overcome.
On the flip side, the Scarlet Knights were 9th in adjusted defensive efficiency at 25.9% while the Mountain Hawks only finished at 45th at 30.9%. The other area that looms large on this matchup is clearing percentage. Rutgers is 8th in the county at 88.8% and Lehigh is only 51st at 81.2%.
The Patriot League champs are vulnerable on the defensive end. If they struggle to clear against RU, the trio of Connor Kirst, Adam Charalambides and Kieran Mullins could do some serious damage. Our friends at College Crosse highlighted this aspect of the matchup, as well named Charalambides one the most important players in the NCAA Tournament.
The Scarlet Knights had an off night offensively in the loss to Johns Hopkins in large part to being stymied in the transition game. Getting out in the break after defensive stops to push the pace and pressure the Lehigh defense is key in this game. Rutgers generates better looks at goal in transition and if they can attack on the run often, it could wear Lehigh down late in the game. If they can pressure the Mountain Hawks into failed clears, their ability to take advantage of those opportunities is a major key in this game.
Of course, a massive storyline in this game is the matchup of the Kirst brothers. Both Connor in attack and Colin in the net have been tremendous this season in playing for their late father’s alma mater. Kyle Kirst was a key player on the last Rutgers team to win an NCAA Tournament game. Now his sons will go head to head with younger brother Cole, who is the second leading scorer for Lehigh. It’s also the school that Colin transferred to RU from last year. The adrenaline and mental focus will already be high for an NCAA Tournament game, but how each Kirst brother handles the emotions of the moment will likely carry significant weight in the outcome. USA Lacrosse Magazine had a great profile on the family and what Saturday will mean to them here.
No matter what happens, Rutgers has a decorated senior class that will be remembered forever for how they’ve elevated this program. However, having the opportunity to win the first NCAA Tournament game in 31 years would further cement their legacy. They know this. Maintaining their composure and rising to the occasion are keys to victory for the Scarlet Knights.
Lehigh is a talented team and Rutgers needs to establish control of the pace from the start. Sharing the ball and getting multiple players involved early will help build confidence and eliminate in any pregame jitters. The leadership of this team needs to take control on the field and set the tone.
It should be an entertaining game and one that will be a battle for 60 minutes. If Rutgers plays to its potential, then they’ll advance in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in over three decades.
Head coach Brian Brecht and Adam Charalambides joined our podcast episode preview earlier this week and you can listen here: