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Sophomore forward Stas Korzeniowski dribbles the ball around Rutgers defenders during the first round of the NCAA tournament at Penn Park on Nov. 17. Credit: Anna Vazhaeparambil

Just days before the World Cup would kick off on the opposite side of the globe, Penn men's soccer demanded attention by nearing its most complete game. The Quakers' conquest of Rutgers in the first round of the NCAA Championship whistled to a 3-0 Red and Blue victory at home, launching them into the second round of the tournament after one of its best outings under coach Brian Gill. 

"In terms of tough times of the year and big moments for us, I thought we came out and played with a lot of energy," Gill said. "[We] played with a lot of inspiring moments in the game, and got a lot of those right on both sides of the ball."

The Quakers ran on confidence fueled by a packed home stand, where seats had grown scarce even half an hour before kickoff. With 16 games together so far this season, their teamwork performed like a well-rehearsed tragedy upon the visiting Scarlet Knights before an audience enthusiastic for every plot turn.

The same stars that shone within Gill’s arsenal throughout this 2022 campaign once again lit the field with poise — an early-season determination now toned with experience and assurance, and galvanized by a spirited home stand.

Of Gill’s most reliable cast was senior forward Ben Stitz, a name surely outstanding on Rutgers’ film and training prior to Thursday. His impact was nearly immediate, as he wrote his name on the scoresheet just two minutes into the game. On a corner set-piece play kept alive by sophomore midfielder Aaron Messer, Stitz received the ball and volleyed it into the net with composure, as if the gravity of an NCAA first-round game weighed little on his demeanor.

“It definitely calms the nerves a little bit once you can get ahead, especially early,” Stitz said. “I thought we did a good job managing from there.”

Plenty more familiar names who were crucial to lifting Penn into the national bracket brought their best games to its coldest contest at home this season. Defenders Leo Burney and Ben Do guarded Penn’s back line for the full 90 minutes, joined by senior defender Nick Schimbeno who demonstrated characteristic gravity in leadership to build the clean sheet win. 

Penn continued to press Rutgers at every seam throughout the first half, leaving it with no moment to escape turbulence through the first 20 minutes.

“I thought it took us probably 20, 25 minutes to really play the way we want to play and knock the ball around,” Rutgers head coach Jim McElderry said. “I thought we were a little sloppy and I think it's a little bit of fatigue as well … But it’s always challenging when you're chasing the game.”

Sophomore forward Stas Korzeniowski neared chances to score more than anyone else who touched the field. A frequent outmatch for most of the Rutgers’ defense, Korzeniowski finally netted the ball off the keeper's loose save at 30 minutes into the game.

In between the posts for Penn, senior goalkeeper Nick Christoffersen built a fortress impervious to the Scarlet Knights' attack in harmony with the defenders. For a third straight clean sheet, Christoffersen kept taut communication with his defense, while reminding of his reliability as the Quakers' last line.

“I think as the season progressed, this group has just gotten tighter and better,” Christoffersen said. “And I think it really comes down to trust. They trust me behind them to make the plays they need, they trust me to cover them. And it's what allows us to not have confusing moments, bad moments as a back four that we look back on.”

Stitz returned to the scoresheet in the second half. Just at the half line was Do, well-positioned to interrupt a Rutgers pass. From Do the ball found junior midfielder Mateo Zazueta, who advanced up the field to connect with Stitz for the final score of the game in the 69th minute.

With this win, Penn sets off on the road Friday ahead of its matchup against Syracuse, the No. 3 seed in the tournament, scheduled for Sunday at 2:00 p.m. With the momentous task at hand, Penn stands with a momentum of quality play joined by a thrilling air of determination.

"I think Syracuse is one of the best in the country, has been the best in the country. So we're going in there knowing that," Gill said. "We are looking at it as our next challenge is our greatest challenge."

The Quakers meet the Syracuse Orange Sunday at 2:00 p.m. at SU Soccer Stadium in Syracuse, N.Y.