- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 2, 2015

PISCATAWAY, N.J. (AP) - Carli Lloyd put Rutgers on the map this summer, leading the United States to the World Cup. The 2015 Rutgers squad is taking the program to new heights.

While Lloyd had one of the best careers in school history from 2001-04, the farthest she led Rutgers was to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament. Now the No. 9 Scarlet Knights are in the College Cup - the program’s first Final Four - facing No. 6 Penn State on Friday in Cary, North Carolina.

“It’s a little bit of a storybook ending in the sense that Carli Lloyd steps up in the World Cup - biggest stage in the world - and does so much for the U.S. team and the Rutgers program, and then we’ve really taken that momentum and just run with it,” defender Maggie Morash said.

It couldn’t have come at a better time for the athletic department. Rutgers has been in turmoil since August because of off-field issues for the football program. Football coach Kyle Flood and athletic director Julie Hermann were fired on Sunday.

“If we can provide a bright spot in this university, then that’s what we want to do,” defender Brianne Reed said. “And that’s what we’re going to try to do.”



Rutgers enters the game after an improbable victory over top-seeded Virginia. Knotted at 0-0 after two overtimes, the game went to penalty kicks. Down 2-0, Rutgers rallied to win the shootout 7-6 in nine rounds.

Virginia had dominated Rutgers from 2012-14, winning three games by a combined score of 15-1. The Cavaliers knocked Rutgers out of the NCAA Tournament in 2012 and 2014.

“That really boosted (our confidence) to a whole new level,” defender Erica Skroski said. “We went in this weekend and we were like, ‘we’re playing free.’ We’re basically in this situation as the underdog and we’re just going to play how we play.’”

Defense is the Scarlet Knights’ trademark.

Rutgers started the season with eight shutouts for the first time in program history and set a school record with a scoreless streak of 12 hours, 40 minutes and 16 seconds.

Morash, Reed and Skroski, all seniors, and junior Erin Smith anchored the defense. Skroski won Big Ten Defender of the Year while Reed joined her on the All-Big Ten first team. They’ve built chemistry with each other over the years, resulting in nonverbal cues.

“I can read the way that Maggie’s body is facing and know where I need to be. I can read the way Skro’s going to go up for the ball and know where I need to be,” Reed said.

The few times teams do get a shot off, they have to get by Big Ten Goalkeeper of the Year, Casey Murphy, a member of the U.S. Women’s U-20 National Team.

“Casey is the best of the best,” Skroski said “She’s been playing at such a high level her whole life … She’s just playing her game and playing confident.”

So is the rest of the team following its upset of the Cavaliers.

“Is there an extra bounce in their step? I would say so,” coach Mike O’Neill said.

“It’s been surreal to a certain degree,” Morash said. “When I came into this program four years ago, we weren’t a Final Four team.”

She said the team has felt good about each matchup along the way.

“And all of a sudden we’re just advancing and advancing … And all of a sudden we’re in the Final Four,” Morash said. “You have to take a look around and be like, ‘Wow. We’ve made it this far. Why stop here?’”

___

This story corrects spelling of Rutgers coach to Mike O’Neill.

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