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Rutgers senior Cole Daninger had a dream game for a defensive midfielder in Saturday’s NCAA 11-9 quarterfinal defeat of Penn. He collected a career-high three assists, including the go-ahead score in the fourth quarter, and he celebrated his program’s breakthrough to the semifinals.

Daninger, a longtime rope unit mainstay, didn’t come out of nowhere. Neither did the Scarlet Knights, who last spring earned their first postseason victory in 31 years and took another step forward this season.

“I would just say staying the course,” Daninger said. “Even since my freshman year, we’ve had the same schematics, the same culture. The coaches have done a great job of instilling that in our program. I would just say staying the course. Nothing really drastic changed. It’s just we’ve had guys who have played since freshman year who are seniors now and we’re really bought into the program.”

A defensive midfielder is rarely a team’s most high-profile player, and Daninger isn’t an exception even after last weekend’s showing. He nonetheless plays a role in so many of the strands responsible for leading sixth-seeded Rutgers (15-3) to the semifinals for the first time in program history, it was apropos he was so prominent in helping to seal the Scarlet Knights’ date with seventh-seeded Cornell.

Perhaps the most striking part of it is his hometown: Lake Tapps, Wash., a little more than 30 miles outside of Seattle. The tale of how he connected with Rutgers isn’t complicated. As a middle school player, he got involved with CitySideLax, a club co-founded by former Rutgers defenseman Chris O’Dougherty.

He’s hardly an exception on the Scarlet Knights’ roster. Attackman Ross Scott is from Oregon. Fellow d-middies Zackary Franckowiak (Utah) and Brennan Kamish (Michigan) are from off the East Coast. Defenseman Jaryd Jean-Felix was recruited out of Georgia.

“Yeah, we’re the state school in New Jersey. Yeah, I’ve got roots to Long Island and the Mid-Atlantic. …,” Brecht said. “There’s so much lacrosse being played, and you just have to take your time. You have to kick over as many rocks as you can to find the right fit. It’s not the first fit, it’s the right fit.”

It’s a stark contrast to the program Brecht took over a little more than a decade ago. In 2011, only 14 of the 41 players on the roster came from outside of New Jersey. Just six players came from outside the Garden State, New York and Pennsylvania (five from Maryland and one from Massachusetts).

Brecht’s first season at Rutgers was 2012, the year Oregon’s Peter Baum won the Tewaaraton Award while playing at Colgate. It was already clear there was talent located outside of traditional hotbeds. Brecht, in need of jumpstarting the Scarlet Knights, set to work exploiting a recruiting inefficiency.

“I think there are these hidden gems out there on the West Coast, and I think you’re seeing in recent years starting to become really prominent in college lacrosse,” Daninger said. “Guys in California, Oregon, Washington. I think it’s just beginning, and I think it’s great for the sport to get the West Coast more involved.”

Added O’Dougherty: “You take the jerseys off the best players from the East Coast and switch the jerseys with the best players out here, I don’t think you can tell the difference anymore. The skill level you see from these kids playing for big-time programs, they’re from all over now. It’s only going to get better.”

By casting a wider net, Brecht was also able to address a problem he immediately faced: An athleticism gap. Early in his tenure, the Scarlet Knights dealt with Notre Dame, Syracuse and (for a season) Denver in the Big East. Then came the start of Big Ten lacrosse and contending with the likes of Johns Hopkins, Maryland and Ohio State on an annual basis.

Again, Daninger’s background matches the Rutgers blueprint. He played safety and wide receiver at Seattle-area power O’Dea High School.

“At the end of the day, we need dudes,” Brecht said. “We need athletes. That’s what it is. We needed more athletes and speed and size. He’s a multi-sport athlete, he played in state football championships in high school, so he’s used to competing, and he’s athletic.”

What he was not used to, however, was playing defense. Daninger was a dominant offensive midfielder growing up, and he started out on that side of the ball during the fall of his freshman year.

Things changed when he returned to campus the next spring.

“I’d never played defensive middie in my life,” Daninger said. “Being out in Washington and on all these club teams, I was strictly an O guy, so I didn’t have a lot of experience playing on the defensive side of the ball. But it’s what the team needed and it helped me get on the field my freshman year.”

Daninger is hardly alone on that front. In 2016 and 2017, when the Scarlet Knights nearly made NCAA tournament breakthroughs, one of their trademarks was an eagerness to take advantage of unsettled situations. The foundation of the strategy was having skilled offensive options manning short stick defensive midfield slots.

Rutgers is a bit more methodical now, though it will run when goalie Colin Kirst can fire a quick outlet pass or it sees a numbers advantage in the substitution game. Daninger’s effort against Penn illustrated the Scarlet Knights still have a run-and-gun effort embedded in the program DNA.

“I know he hasn’t lit the lamp as much this year, but he’s making those secondary plays, and obviously it came to fruition this past weekend with the three assists, and he took a couple shots,” O’Dougherty said. “Just having that confidence in players, Coach Brecht has done a great job of promoting that fun brand of lacrosse.”

That brand also gives Rutgers an identity, yet another prong in the Scarlet Knights’ strategy to grow as a program.

It’s also invigorated program alumni like O’Dougherty, who credit Brecht for his outreach efforts. He remains in contact with Daninger and is eager to see the Scarlet Knights on the sport’s biggest stage.

“They made us feel proud to say we’re Rutgers again,” said O’Dougherty, who grew up in New Jersey. “We always say it’s on the Banks there, and enjoy the time you have left and enjoy every moment. They’ve joined an elite group that can say they played in a final four. Not many people can say that.”

Now Daninger and Rutgers can. The senior has heard from both O’Dougherty and former Maryland midfielder Drew Snider, a Seattle product who also co-founded CitySideLax, this week. Their message is simple: Have a blast.

“He was saying embrace this moment — it’s the last week of practice, but it’s the best week,” Daninger said. “It’s been good having guys like him and [O’Dougherty] staying in my ear talking about, ‘Don’t take it for granted. These are some of the best moments of your life.’ It’s really just been special. It’s a great feeling, but it’s not done yet.”

Given its breakthrough this May, Rutgers might just be getting started.