Defense plays pivotal role in Rutgers' success
Defense wins championships, as the old adage goes, but a good offense starts with a great defense.
As cliché as those two statements may be, they hold true to how far a team in any sport can go on its journey to the top.
And in NCAA Division 1 women’s soccer, these two statements correlate directly to the success of the Rutgers women’s soccer team.
Coming into the season, the Scarlet Knights returned seven players who logged valuable minutes on the back defensive line throughout last year’s 13-4-5 campaign.
Since they first stepped back onto the field in the season opener against Stony Brook, the defenders have yet to miss a beat.
For the second year in a row, Rutgers boasts a 7-1-1 overall record. In its first year among the some of the nation’s most elite women’s soccer programs, the team holds a respectable 3-1-1 mark in the Big Ten conference.
If you ask head coach Mike O’Neill, one of the key components to the Knights’ success has been the fortitude of the defense.
“They’re just playing really well. They’re good on their feet,” O’Neill said of the defense. “They’re playing as one, and they’re practicing as one … I can’t say enough about them.”
In three of the past four games, Rutgers has held a clean sheet. In each of those shutouts, the team squeaked by opponents with 1-0 escapes.
Shutouts are statistically credited directly to the goalkeeper, and from the way freshman Casey Murphy has played during her quick transition to the collegiate level, credit is being given where it’s due. An integral part of the Knights’ defense, Murphy holds a .852 save percentage and 23 saves.
But the members of the supporting cast aiding Murphy around the net and helping generate offensive opportunities on the opposite end of the field deserve just as much credit.
Earlier in the season, Murphy praised her experienced teammates who made up the defensive unit around her for the way they limited shots and action close to the net.
“When we spread around, the girl behind us has our back no matter what. … We have complete faith in each other,” said junior backer Maggie Morash. “And it doesn’t matter who’s coming at us. If we have the four of us, we can take them on.”
With the defense being comprised of mostly juniors and seniors, the experience playing together for years has tightened the group and strengthened its ability to counter opposing offenses as a whole.
“We know our strengths and weaknesses really well, so no matter who we play next to, if they can’t make it to the ball, we have to defend the cover,” said junior backer Brianne Reed. “We just keep each other very balanced on the back line.”
O’Neill has been vocal about the depth of his team and made it known that the defense is an area abundant with backers he can trust to be inserted at any minute of any game.
In Rutgers’ 1-0 shutout win over Iowa, O’Neill said he went with six defenders on the backline throughout most of the game and has done so periodically throughout the season.
Part of what adds to the depth is the emphasis the Knights place on practice.
Senior Tori Leigh said players within the unit take advantage of the afternoons on the practice field to bring out the best in each other’s game.
“In practice, we better each other,” Leigh said. “We pride ourselves on how hard we work together. … We push everyday to get better and better.”
To the defense, what’s more rewarding than a hard-fought win?
No goals on the scoreboard for the other team.
“That’s one of the biggest things we pride ourselves on. It’s how hard we work and how hard we deny crosses, deny shots, deny goals,” Leigh said. “There’s nothing more important to us than getting a shutout.”
While senior forwards Amy Pietrangelo and Stef Scholz power the Knights on the offensive end, sophomore backer Erin Smith weighed in with her perspective of the way she and the other defenders treat shutouts.
“We might not get a lot of repetition, but we have a lot of pride in getting shutouts because that’s just what we do,” Smith said. “Forwards get goals, and [defenders] get shutouts.”
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