(Photo Courtesy of Rutgers Athletics)
Since the first NCAA Tournament in 1971, the Rutgers Scarlet Knights have made nine appearances. Their last trip came in 2004 when they made the Scarlet Knights completed their second-ever back-to-back NCAA Tournament trip.
While the Scarlet Knights have yet to reach the promised land since that 2004 season, the arrival of Brian Brecht and the emergence of Big Ten lacrosse has brought Rutgers lacrosse to new heights. And no point has been higher during the Brecht era than the 2016 and 2017 season. The 2016 season saw the Scarlet Knights reach double-digit wins for the first time since 2003 and make an appearance in the Big Ten title game, where they fell to Maryland. 2017 saw the Scarlet Knights start 8-0 and reach a ranking of No. 1 for the first time in program history. However, an upset loss to Delaware and multiple trip ups in the Big Ten would hold them out of the postseason altogether.
Since those two historic seasons, Rutgers has been a consistent third or fourth-best team amongst the Big Ten, losing to Maryland and Penn State in the first round of the 2018 and 2019 Big Ten tournaments, and has seemingly not been able to play at the same level consistently that they did during those two years in 2016 and 2017. Although, they haven’t necessarily lacked the talent to do so.
Coming into the 2021 season, the Scarlet Knights possess a wealth of talent and experience that hasn’t been there since that 2017 season and could very well assert themselves back into that top-tier portion of the Big Ten, and possibly break that 16-year NCAA Tournament drought.
After going 2-4 during the shortened 2020 season, which included one-goal losses to Loyola and Stony Brook, Rutgers went on one of the best off-season runs in recent memory. Not only were the Scarlet Knights able to get back some key players due to the NCAA’s ruling that granted spring sport athletes an extra year of eligibility, but they took a dive into the Transfer Portal and came out with gold.
The Scarlet Knights have added grad transfer midfielder Connor Kirst from Villanova, goalie Colin Kirst from Lehigh, and SSDM Brian Ward from Yale. Connor Kirst has been an offensive force throughout his college career and will make a huge impact on this Scarlet Knights offense, adding more talent and depth to what was already a pretty impressive midfield unit. Colin Kirst will compete with Stephen Russo for that straight spot in cage, while Ward should be a nice, productive addition to the Scarlet Knights’ defensive midfield unit.
In addition to those impact grad transfers, the Scarlet Knights also return attackmen Kieran Mullins (10G/10A) and Adam Charalambides (15G/7A), and defenseman Garrett Bullett will all be back for another season and look to continue making similar impacts at their respective positions that they have for their entire college careers.
Having this amount of talent, new and old, on this Rutgers squad is a big plus for this program and a big reason why there is hype building on the banks in Piscataway. And where that hype lies the most is on the offensive end, where Rutgers returns multiple impact underclassmen in addition to the aforementioned grad transfers and returnees.
Junior midfielder David Sprock (12G/5A), who has been an impact player since he stepped foot on campus and was third in scoring last season, senior attackman Ryan Gallagher (11G/4A), senior midfielder Tommy Coyne (4G/1A), and senior midfielder Brennan Kamish (5G/1A) will all return and only add to the firepower on the offensive end for this squad.
While the Scarlet Knights’ offense is expected to be pretty talented and deep again this season, the biggest question is how many possessions will they be able to showcase that firepower? Last season, Rutgers ranked 71st in DI in faceoff percentage (.331). Only Towson, now defunct Furman, and St. Bonaventure ranked lower in that category. Rutgers will have to find success at the faceoff dot if they want any shot at fully showing who they are, especially on the offensive end. And if they don’t, one has to wonder how much weight that will put on their defense, which ranked 46th in DI in scoring defenses last season, allowing 12.50 goals per game.
Outside of the two aforementioned goalies, Kirst and Russo, and Bullett, senior defensemen Jaryd Jean-Felix (7GB/6CT) and Zach Masessa (15GB/7CT) will be looking to continue their progression and help this defense take a step in the right direction after below-average seasons on the back end. Junior LSM Ethan Rall (9GB/7CT) is another impact player on the defensive end that is expected to put together another solid season and help this defense improve as a unit.
If this defense can improve as a whole and the Scarlet Knights find a suitable option at the faceoff dot, 2021 could be a strong and possibly memorable season for Rutgers.