With history on the line, the Rutgers women’s lacrosse team rose to the occasion to win its first ever NCAA Tournament game on Friday afternoon. The No. 16 Scarlet Knights defeated No. 10 Drexel 16-13 in the first round behind four goals apiece from senior captains TT Naslonski and Hannah Hollingsworth. It was also the highest ranked win for the program since beating No. 7 Princeton in 2010.
“This team is so excited for what we were able to accomplish today,” said head coach Melissa Lehman, who led Rutgers to its historic victory in just her second year with the program. “They fought hard for 60 minutes and we’re so proud to make history at Rutgers.”
It was a back and forth first half that saw six lead changes before Drexel jumped in front 7-5 right before halftime. Sophomore Jenna Byrne scored her second goal of the game with just 12 seconds left in the opening frame to give RU some much needed momentum heading into the locker room. Another senior captain, Julia Lytle, was also key in keeping the Scarlet Knights in the game with two first half goals as well.
Rutgers seized the moment by opening the second half on a 5-1 scoring run started behind two goals in a row from Naslonski. The run was capped by a brilliant individual play from First Team All-Big Ten sophomore Meghan Ball, who won a draw and went the distance to give RU a commanding 11-8 lead with just over 20 minutes remaining.
Ball set a program single game record in winning 13 draw controls, including nine in the second half, helping Rutgers hold a 19-12 advantage overall. It changed the dynamic of the game and Drexel was unable to match its season scoring average of 16.5 goals, which was sixth most in the country entering Friday.
After Drexel cut the deficit to two goals, Naslonski and Hollingsworth made sure they would never get closer the rest of the game. They scored or assisted on every goal RU produced the rest of the way to close out the 16-13 victory. Naslonski, who entered this game in seventh place for points in program history, finished with a game high seven points behind four goals and three assists. Hollingsworth scored all four of her goals in the second half and added an assist. Lytle also led RU with three caused turnovers aside from her two first half goals.
The performances of the senior captains was crucial on a day that leading scorer Cassidy Spilis, an First Team All-Big Ten selection, was limited to two shots and didn’t breakthrough until scoring the final goal of the game for the Scarlet Knights.
Regarding the victory, Naslonski said, “We’ve been in this position before, so we knew we had to come out strong in the second half in order to secure the win.”
On what changed in the second half, Lehman remarked, “We needed to get possessions and work the ball around more on the attack in the second half. Drexel was physical in the first half, so our team fought back in the second half, took chances and put goals in the back of the net.”
Freshman goalkeeper Sophia Cardello made seven saves in the win, including four against CAA Player of the Year Karson Harris, who scored three goals on 11 shots.
No. 16 Rutgers (7-8) will take on No. 8 Stony Brook, host of the regional, on Sunday May 16 at noon. The Seawolves defeated Towson 14-8 on Friday to improve to 15-2 on the season. The America East champions are 10-0 at LaValle Stadium this season and will pose a major challenge on Sunday.
Despite the obstacle ahead with Stony Brook, this Rutgers team is peaking after winning four of its last five games, including three against ranked foes. The only loss came to undefeated Northwestern in the Big Ten semifinals and they were tied in the second half. Lehman said in our podcast episode this week that this team believes they can play with anyone in the country After making history on Friday, the Scarlet Knights will fight to make even more on Sunday.