As the clock ticked under ten minutes remaining in the game, No. 6 Rutgers was in danger of letting another opportunity to advance to the Final Four slip away once again. After jumping out to a 2-0 lead after the first quarter against No. 3 Penn, the Scarlet Knights were trailing 8-6. This team didn’t carry the burden of the program’s all-time 0-7 record in the Quarterfinals coming into Saturday. However, they did have the experience of taking No. 1 North Carolina to overtime last season and falling just short of pulling off the upset of the tournament. A year later on the same field at Hofstra University in Long Island, Rutgers pulled an epic comeback that delivered the biggest win in program history.
The Scarlet Knights scored five goals over an eight minute span to stun the Quakers, who came into the Elite Eight having won seven games in a row including four against ranked foes. Former Penn captain Mitch Bartolo found Shane Knobloch who scored to make it a one goal game with 9:19 to play and then he scored himself just 24 seconds later to tie up the score at 8-8. Freshman Dante Kulas scored his first goal since March 19, which coincidentally came on the same field against Hofstra, after missing almost two months with an injury to give RU the lead. Knobloch scored his team high third goal of the game before starting defenseman Bryant Boswell picked up a loose ball off a Penn turnover and scored his first goal of the season that unofficially clinched the victory. Rutgers then yielded a score late before winning 11-9.
It was a flurry for the ages and the program now heads to the Final Four for the first time ever.
“I’m so proud of our guys,” said head coach Brian Brecht. “The commitment, the focus, the tireless effort in preparation that they’ve put in all year. I’m thankful to have a great administration that cares a lot about lacrosse and a great alumni base that is very proud and supportive of this program. We have talented student-athletes that care and work so hard, so that’s a great recipe for success. We had a great week of practice and a great mix of confidence and looseness, the highest spirits I’ve seen all year. I’m proud of the team.”
Rutgers came into Saturday eighth in the nation in scoring offense with a 14.94 goals per game average. However, Penn limited the Scarlet Knights the most of the game until they busted out with their backs against the wall. RU never would have had a chance to pull off the comeback if not for their own defense, who held Penn more than four goals under their season average of 13.07 (29th nationally).
All-American goalkeeper Colin Kirst came through for Rutgers once again after making 18 saves including 12 in the second half and 7 in the fourth quarter. This came one week after he made 17 saves against Harvard and held them to just 9 goals. In four NCAA tournament games over the past two seasons, Kirst has just an 8.75 goals-against-average and is averaging 17 saves per game. With 221 saves made so far in 2022, Kirst has registered the fourth most stops in a single season in program history.
Asked about his success against Penn after the game and Kirst gave all the credit to his teammates.
“Credit to our D,” said Kirst. “Our rope unit, E (Ethan Rall), Cole (Daninger), Tommy (Coyne), (Brennan) Kammish, Franco (Zachary Franckowiak). Those guys up top, they allow me to see shots the way I like to see and really zone in. Especially with the guys down low, Brad (Apgar), Boz (Bryant Boswell), Jaryd (Jean-Felix) and Bobby (Russo), it’s a credit to them. They know me really well as a goalie but also as a person. They know what I do well with certain shots. It’s really a credit to them and how they operate.”
Knobloch’s hat trick was huge for Rutgers, but he recognized how important the defense was to the victory. “It’s a game of runs. They had theirs, we had ours,” said Knobloch. “Our defense was getting stops left and right.”
The Rutgers defense held First Team All-American and Tewaaraton Award finalist Sam Handley scoreless on the day on seven shots. Although he did manage three assists, Handley also turned it over four times.
As Jaryd Jean-Felix discussed on the On The Banks podcast this past week, the transition offense generated from a Kirst save or a forced turnover by the defense is crucial to this team’s success. Kirst had six ground balls after scooping up eight last week against Harvard. His ability to clear the ball out quickly was on full display again on Saturday while the rope unit of Rutgers was able to produce three goals and four assists in the win.
Cole Daninger is part of that group and had career high 3 assists including finding Kulas for the game winning goal. He spoke about the mindset of this team, who lead the nation in clearing percentage, in attacking off of a defensive stop.
“Our transition, we’re just running and gunning,” said Daninger. “We see Colin make a great save and then we’re gone, we’re up and out. Colin does a great job, the rope guys do a great job of just looking for the head man. We really were digging in and wanted it so bad. That’s us. We like to run and gun. We were playing early offense and running our way, and that did it.”
Credit Penn goalkeeper Patrick Burkinshaw for limiting Rutgers most of the game as he made 14 saves in the game. However, 11 came in the first half and he only stopped one shot in the fourth quarter during the offensive explosion by the Scarlet Knights.
“Our offense moves the ball so well, it can be anyone on a given day,” stated Knobloch. As for what this victory meant, he explained, “You see how special this is to our team. We had a lot of alumni here and they always are supporting us, that’s great to have their support always.”
First Team All-American Long stick midfielder Ethan Rall scored just his second goal of the season in addition to having three ground balls and three caused turnovers. He highlighted a key to this team’s success as well as how personal the win was for him.
“The trust we have in each other is special,” said Rall. “That’s grown since the fall and it continues to get better in these big moments. Being from Long Island, I grew up watching these games. This was special to play two years in a row here, and to score a goal and help my team get to the Final Four.”
Kirst put the meaning of the win in perspective for the players on this team.
“This is special. We all dreamed as a kid to go to the Final Four and play for a national championship,” said Kirst. “It’s definitely a special feeling. I love the guys in our locker room and I’m very grateful.”
Rutgers will face No. 7 Cornell, who beat Delaware 10-8, on May 28 at noon in East Hartford, Connecticut. The program is officially in unchartered territory but will likely be favored against the Big Red on Championship Weekend in the national semifinals.
Throughout the season and postseason, everyone I’ve spoken to within the program has harped on the importance of this team focusing on themselves above all else. As much as they are prepared for their opponents, playing together and in their style is a major reason they’re 15-3 and headed to the program’s first ever Final Four.
Brecht has had a steady hand directing this team all season and maintaining their focus as they continued to inch closer to their ultimate goal. His assessment of Saturday’s victory was simple.
“Players make plays,” said Brecht. “They got out there and they did what they had to do and what they’ve been doing since September.”
If Rutgers can continue to play their way, they very much could end up playing for a National Championship on Memorial Day.