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Rutgers prepares to face Penn State in women’s College Cup semis

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PISCATAWAY, N.J. (Via Rutgers University) – The same basics hold true for the Rutgers women’s soccer team as it prepares to face Penn State in Friday’s national semifinals in the College Cup in Cary, N.C.

The defense has to continue its suffocating, record-setting ways.

The offense will have to lean on a roster that features 10 different players with at least two goals to find a way to score.

But as head coach Mike O’Neill looks at the third meeting this season with the Nittany Lions (ESPNU, 5 p.m.), it’s the midfield play he sees as being the difference.

“We talk so much about defending as 11 and the most important area of the field to protect is the area in front of the back four,” he said. “The midfielders do an unbelievable job with that. We ask them to do their job defensively and then we’ve got to get them up the other side to keep possession. Because we’re a possession-oriented team the game has to float through our midfield. They’re very valuable.

“They do a good job of setting things up. Sometimes they don’t get credit for all of the work that they do. Sometimes it’s the dirty work, sometimes it’s the pretty work. But for this program the midfield players are critical to our success because we’re a possession-oriented team.”

No. 9-ranked Rutgers (19-3-3) has seen its midfield perform at a level that is largely responsible for the program’s first Final Four appearance – often minus the attention both the star-studded back four and goal-scorers receive.

And that’s good enough for a group that features seniors Hayley Katkowski and Samantha Valliant, juniors Jennifer Andresen and Tori Prager and freshman Kenie Wright.

“We’re all part of this team’s success,” said Katkowski, who will start her 90th consecutive game on Friday. “We may not get the spotlight as much but this team knows that it’s all 11 people on the field and 30 strong – it’s anyone who comes in – and that we’re all part of the credit the defense gets and the offense gets.”

Rutgers, coming off a 7-6 penalty kick shootout victory over No. 1-ranked Virginia last Friday, split the two meetings with the No. 6-ranked Nittany Lions (20-3-2) — winning 1-0 at home before suffering a 2-0 loss at Penn State in the Big Ten Tournament championship game.

That loss snapped a 10-game (8-0-2) unbeaten streak. But it also seemed to launch the latest tear this team is on: Four-straight shutouts in the NCAA Tournament, raising the school-record total to 19.

“Definitely, possession is the key to the Penn State game,” said Prager, whose penalty kick proved to be the match clincher in the ninth round when goalkeeper Casey Murphy made a diving save on Makenzy Doniak’s ensuing try. “Going through the middle is really important for us. We play our best when we pass the ball through the middle out wide. So it’s definitely going to play a big role this game.

“I thought we had difficulty finding the midfield the second time we played them. I think we’ll be better this time. The way we’ve been playing the past four games has really been incredible.”

Andresen said it still baffles her when she thinks back to the Penn State loss, which marked just the second time all season that Rutgers allowed more than one goal in a game.

“I don’t know what it was that game,” she said. “We kind of played like we were not ourselves. I can’t explain it. But we’re playing so well right now, with so much energy, and we all just really believe in each other.”

Wright, the newest piece to the talented midfield collection, adapted quickly to Rutgers’ style of play while also understanding the role at her positions requires playing both offense and defense.

“We’re the connector between offense and defense,” she said. “We have to distribute the ball, we have to go back on defense and sometimes we have to help with the attack. When we do all of those things well we feel like we can play with anyone in the country.”

Wright said her first thought when she arrived for preseason practice is that the assembled talent was good enough to make this a special season for the Scarlet Knights. Now she’s in the Final Four in her first semester of college and trying to enjoy it.

“It’s been an amazing experience. It’s been the best freshman year I could ask for,” she said. “The only thing that could top it off is winning a national championship. All of the upper classmen have been so welcoming. It’s just so fun to be part of this team.

“The experience is so cool. I’m not overwhelmed by it. I’m taking it all in. I’m so grateful I’m part of this team.”

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