Misery in defeat comes harder the farther your season goes. For the Rutgers men’s lacrosse team on Saturday, it meant falling painfully short of earning the program’s first every Final Four berth. It also wasn’t the missed destination that hurt but it was having the top ranked and top seeded team in the country on the ropes that made it even more painful. In the end the Scarlet Knights fell short with a stomach punch defeat, ending the most successful season in many years.
No. 1 North Carolina advanced with a 12-11 victory in overtime but that doesn’t begin to tell the full story. Rutgers didn’t just go toe to toe with the mighty Tarheels, who advanced to its 14th Final Four with the win. The Scarlet Knights were the better team on the field at Shuart Stadium for significant portions of the game. Despite holding second half leads of 6-4 and 10-8, the back and forth battle saw RU fall on the wrong end of the sword. The Tarheels did the little things best down the stretch and it added up in their favor.
It was an ironic twist of fate that in a game that the Scarlet Knights surprisingly won 55.6% of the face-offs after averaging under 40% this season, they failed in a area that was a strength.
Rutgers entered Saturday’s contest averaging just 12.25 turnovers per game, the lowest mark in the nation. Unfortunately, it was their undoing when it mattered most. They committed 16 on Saturday, including one late in regulation and one that gave Carolina the ball back for the possession that won the game. After being perfect in clears for a long stretch, Rutgers had three costly failed clears after halftime and several other untimely giveaways as well. Of course, the Tarheels relentless pursuit deserves credit and ultimately wore the Scarlet Knights down.
That doesn’t take away from the brilliant defensive effort that held the top scoring team in the country five goals below its scoring average. UNC had the final possession of regulation but failed to get a shot off. Bobby Russo defended All-American and leading scorer Chris Gray most of the game and held him without a goal. Goalkeeper Colin Kirst was sensational once again, registering 16 saves, several at point blank range. The RU defense was underrated all season and made a huge statement against an ACC power even in defeat.
“I’m so proud of this team and the success they had this year,” head coach Brian Brecht said. “The commitment they had to make, the sacrifices. Our seniors were great leaders in every sense of the word. Our guys make this fun because they care so much, they take care of one another. It’s been a great year. Disappointed we can’t spend time together next week, but I’m very proud of everything they’ve done today and throughout the season.”
Adam Charalambides finished his distinguished career at Rutgers with a team high four goals. He finished second all-time in program history with 149 goals and tied for fifth all-time with 201 points. He scored more than once with an incredible level of difficulty in this game, but the last of his career in Scarlet was his best of the day.
Kieran Mullins didn’t make the impact he hoped for with just one assist, but finished his Rutgers career second in points all-time in program history, as well as tied for sixth in assists and seventh in goals.
Connor Kirst was an All-American at Villanova before transferring in for this season. His First Team All-Big Ten campaign ended with 2 goals and an assist. Along with brother Colin, who transferred from Lehigh and was tremendous in net this season, the entire senior class will go down as one for the ages.
“I’m thankful for the buy-in we’ve had from top to bottom,” said Charalambides. “It starts with Coach Brecht, he brought amazing cats in for this final year. Colin, Connor Kirst, Jonathan Dugenio, Brian Ward, all the transfers we’ve had. I’m thankful for everyone who joined us for this 2021 season. There was difficulties with Covid, but there was great buy in from everyone on the team. That’s the beauty of a team, the beauty of sports. I’m thankful I got to be part of it.”
The future remains bright for Rutgers and several players set to return next season made an impact on Saturday. Junior David Sprock scored twice and sophomore Ross Scott showed why he could emerge as the next star, finishing with two goals and an assist. Big Ten Freshman of the Year Shane Knobloch scored one goal.
Rutgers finished the 2021 season with a 9-4 record, a likely top ten national ranking, a second place finish in the Big Ten in a year they played double the amount of conference games and won the program’s first NCAA Tournament contest in 31 years. The disappointment of the loss to North Carolina will never go away, but this team and this senior class elevated the program to a level it hadn’t been at in a very long time. They will be remembered forever.