All-Americans: Lino DiCuollo, Alexi Lalas
Rutgers served as the host of the final four. The 20 wins marked the first time in school history that a Rutgers team won 20 matches.
After a rebuilding year in 1988, the pieces all seemed to be in place for a huge 1989 campaign. After a tremendous tour of Europe in the late spring, Rutgers looked to hit the ground running when August rolled around. That never happened. Rutgers Soccer never played with all the pieces.
Start with the fact that Dan Lidner and Geoff Starkes would miss the entire season, and that sapped a major portion of the depth in the midfield. Bob Reasso was ready for that, but things began to occur immediately afterward that had some people worrying.
An NCAA inquiry held Chris Brauchle, Steve Rammel, and Dave Mueller out of preseason training. While Rutgers came out of the investigation without any substantial penalty, three keynote players would have to go into the opener against Monmouth a step behind.
Only a penalty kick by Lino DiCuollo saved the Scarlet, who won 1-0. It was a struggle as Monmouth played with almost their entire side on the back line, and Rutgers could only muster six shots on goal.
Army was next. This match was a physical one, and, appropriately, one of Rutgers' most physical players, Alexi Lalas, tallied the only goal. He scored on a run from his sweeper position, dribbling from the midfield past the 18 yard line, beating a defender, and put the ball home after his initial shot was knocked right back to him.
At this point, the heavy adversity began to set in. It was learned that Tony DeOrio, the grandfather of the Scarlet Knights, would miss three games with a collapsed lung. This put some heavy weight on Jeff Carstens' shoulders, he started his first ever collegiate game against St. Joseph's in the Atlantic-10 opener, and helped the Scarlet to a 4-0 victory, with senior Ben Letson and super sophomore Lino DiCuollo each clicking for a pair of goals.
Rutgers came out of this match without Dave Mueller, the hard luck Scarlet Knight, who severely sprained his left ankle. He would play in three of the first 13 matches.
This brings the horror show to Raleigh, NC, for the first road match against NC State. The Scarlet fell behind for the first time in 1989 on a goal 25 minutes into the match. Chris Brauchle evened up the Scarlet seven minutes into the second half, which set the stage for Steve Rammel to make his first noise as a Scarlet Knight. He scored 11 minutes later to give Rutgers the win and keep them unbeaten.
The road trip continued with the Booters heading up the Garden State Parkway to FDU. It was a day to forget. FDUs Rob Krznowski scored with less than a minute to go in the half, and Rutgers was essentially finished in the match, as FDU packed in the defense and cruised 1-0.
Rutgers got back to scoring goals in the next week, tallying five times in two games, with DiCuollo scoring three of them. Things were getting back to normal. Dave Barrueta had allowed only two goals, and the Scarlet were 6-1 going into the George Mason game.
GEORGE MASON! It was the match that changed things. The match that pulled the team together. On the surface, one would look at that statement with confusion. This was the match that saw right back Chris Beach go down for the season with a broken leg.
At that point in time, it looked very bleak. Mueller, DeOrio, and now Beach, who was having a monster season, all were hurt severely during the first seven matches. Beach was lost for the year, and one would think the mood would have been at an all time low.
Quite the contrary, the fire was lit. For the first time all season, Rutgers was really focused. The side was on a mission, and it showed, especially on the front line. The time to take prisoners was over. Rutgers pounded Rhode Island, 4-0, as Rammel had two goals and Ben Letson and DiCuollo each put one home. Rammel had two more against Philadelphia Textile. Rammel and DiCuollo each scored with under 10 minutes to go at Temple, giving Rutgers a 2-0 win.
This leads us to the MetLife Classic. The opener had Rammel scoring two goals, leading the Scarlet to a 6-0 win. The Sunday match was the prototype Rutgers effort. Their encounter with Boston University was an epic one. The Terriers fought the Scarlet Knights with passion and fire. The match had everything you wanted from soccer. Long balls, technical play, vicious tackling, and true grit. Rutgers never stopped playing, and got a penalty kick opportunity that DiCuollo converted for the 1-0 victory.
All of a sudden, things changed. The mood had shifted from panic to bliss. Rutgers was on an eight match winning streak, and playing their best soccer of the year. Rutgers now looked forward to their trip to the west coast. San Diego State was up first, and guess who scored for Rutgers in the 2-1 win? You don't have to be a genius to figure out that the Dynamic Duo of DiCuollo and Rammel did it again. Rammel tallied at 70 minutes to ice the victory.
UCLA was next. They were third ranked, and on their home pitch. The Eastern invaders got out of the gate slowly, and a controversial call in the box gave the Bruins a penalty kick opportunity that Will Steadman converted.
The 1-0 loss was a tough one to swallow, but a lot was accomplished. The team had completed the longest winning streak in the school's history at 10 games. The side was now 14-2, and ranked seventh. Rutgers had the best pair of strikers in the country. Steve Rammel had 10 goals and six assists during the winning streak, and DiCuollo had 15 goals in the 16 contests. Mueller was near 100%, Rammel had played through a groin injury, DeOrio was healthy, Carstens now had the game experience, and the attack was as good as there was, anywhere. Three wins, and Rutgers would be a lock to get to the tournament. They defeated Temple in the Atlantic-10 conference semi-finals, and got to face Penn State in the tournament finale. That has meant bad news the last two years for Rutgers, as they had lost each time to the Nittany.
They did again. With two minutes to go, Penn State scored, and Rutgers had to go to the "big dance" on a losing note, but it gave Rutgers the fire once again.
Rutgers received a bid in the NCAA tournament, and got a first round bye. A rematch against FDU was possible, but Columbia beat them 4-1 in the opening round. That sent them to Piscataway, and Rutgers eagerly awaited. Especially Steve Rammel. He had his chance to showcase his talent in the scope of the NCAA tournament.
He tallied his first collegiate hat trick against the Lions. He now had 17 goals on the season, and he sent Rutgers to the regional finals for the second time in three years. The opponent was Vermont, a team that Rutgers defeated a year ago, 2-0.
In a season of surprises and unexpected events, Jeff Zaun added to the list. He tallied his first collegiate goal early on in the match. Vermont answered back quickly on a Roberto Beall goal, and the stage was set for drama in the highest magnitude. The two sides battled and clawed in the overtime. Dave Barrueta and Jim St. Andre each made big saves in the extra stanza, both teams left it all on the pitch. The difference may have been the will of the Scarlet to get it done in the face of adversity, with under three minutes to go in the match, Dave Mueller crossed a ball to Ben Letson in the box, who got just enough of the ball with his head to get it to Chris Brauchle. He took two swipes at the ball, and the second one went into the net.
They were in the Final Four, in a year when it just did not stack up for Rutgers. They faced Virginia in the national semifinals, and almost drew first blood. Mueller crossed a ball to Rammel, who was in the box between two Cavalier defenders. His header had some steam, but just not enough to get by Hermann Award winner Tony Meola. His save seemed to turn the tide in the match, and John Maessner tallied a goal to give UVA a 1-0 lead. Rutgers had one last glimmer of hope when a Darryl Edelstein cross went to Rammel in the box. Unmarked, he fired a shot that trickled past Meola, but the goal was disallowed because of offsides. Maessner scored again, and a late goal gave Virginia a spot in the finals.
The stats will show impressiveness. The team was 20-4, which sets a school record for wins and winning percentage in a season. More impressive than the stats is the way in which they obtained them. The 1989 side had only two players, Ben Letson and Alexi Lalas, go through the whole season without some form of injury. They were always changing their attack to cater to the needs of the adversity in front of them.
Win or lose, their chins were up, and always complementary of the opponent. They truly defined grace under pressure.