April 25, 2019 | 56° F

Kearny roots aid O'Neill in first year as head coach

Driving down Kearny Avenue in Kearny, New Jersey, the sign says it all: “Welcome to Kearny. Soccer Town, U.S.A.” 

A small town with a population of 40,000 people on the north side of the Passaic River across from Newark, Kearny is a town that virtually breathes soccer.

It also happens to be where current Rutgers head women’s soccer coach Mike O’Neill initiated his knowledge and passion for the game.

Raised on soccer, there was nothing O’Neill knew better. It was instinctive. It was organic. 

Upon being given the Coggins Award as the top soccer player in New Jersey in 1984, O’Neill led Kearny High School to a state championship and a number-one national ranking. 

He then took his talents a few towns over and aided Seton Hall to consecutive Big East Championships in 1987 and 1988, reaching the Elite Eight in both years.

Although he left college with a bachelor’s degree in business management, O’Neill knew he could not go on without soccer in his life in one way or another.

“I still wanted to be involved with the game,” O’Neill said. “When I got the opportunity to coach for a team in Bergen County, I really liked it. I wanted to educate myself, so I took some classes, and when I started taking my licensing, it was nice to get back on the field and have to try to impress someone again and win their respect. That kind of got my coaching juices flowing.”

After earning his coaching license, O’Neill began working with various club soccer teams throughout New Jersey, aiding the development of soccer players from ages eight through 18.

Along that journey, he met former Rutgers head coach Glenn Crooks. 

Crooks, who was also active particularly in the youth girls soccer community, clicked with O’Neill. When he was offered the job as head coach at Rutgers in 2000, he invited O’Neill along to join his staff.

“I loved my position here at Rutgers,” O’Neill said of the job he held as an assistant. “To get the opportunity to work side-by-side with Glenn for 14 years prepared me. It motivated me to become the best coach I could possibly be.”

Working alongside Crooks, O’Neill picked the brain of the second-winningest coach in program history. When Crooks abruptly retired on July 23 this year with the preseason right around the corner, there was no panic because of the trust and confidence the Knights had in O’Neill. 

Junior midfielder Hayley Katkowski, who has known both coaches for some time, noted that the transition between the two has been seamless.

“They’re different in things they do in training,” she said. “But I think the transition’s been really smooth, and we’ve gotten used to how Mike does things compared to coach [Crooks].”

Sophomore midfielder Madison Tiernan, who has gotten off to an impressive start with six points and two goals in the early season, also voiced support for her coach during the tough period, crediting O’Neill with upping her and the entire team’s game as a whole.

“It was really smooth,” Tiernan said. “Honestly, there’s no other word that describes it. “Everyone already had a relationship with Mike, so it wasn’t a brand new thing, and he really took it by the reins and took control. We were all just really happy that he stepped in, and he’s doing such a great job.”

But to O’Neill, the wins and losses are just extra points. The bigger picture, as it was with the youth players he oversaw, is about development off the field.

“That’s number one,” O’Neill said. “I don’t even know how to explain it. But I think it is the most important thing we have in this position [as coaches] — it’s to teach these girls about life through a game. One of the greatest things I got out of this game is the relationships and friendships. It’s so important.”

Despite the suddenness of Crooks’ departure, O’Neill reiterated his hopes to build on the foundation set by his predecessor with his knowledge of development in the game on and off the field. 

“Timing is what you make of it,” he said. “We’re going to do our best to make the timing of everything truly positive because we are going into a new conference and a big jump in competition.”

For updates on the Rutgers women’s soccer team, follow @TargumSports on Twitter.

Garrett Stepien

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