Rutgers sweeps first three games under new head coach
When Mike O’Neill was named the next head coach of the Rutgers women’s soccer team, the Scarlet Knights were firm on the belief that the transition from former head coach Glenn Crooks would be seamless.
Three games in, it sure looks that way.
In their third game of the season, the Knights remained unbeaten with a gritty 1-0 shutout Friday against in-state rival Seton Hall on Alumni Night at Yurcak Field.
The second consecutive shutout and third win in a row caps a three-game August home stand in which the Knights (3-0) seemed to outperform the competition.
Rutgers started off on the right foot on opening night Aug. 22 with a 3-1 win over Stony Brook thanks to sophomore forward Madison Tiernan’s impressive two-goal performance.
Sophomore midfielder Jennifer Andersen also scored a goal to put the game out of reach.
Rutgers seized control of the tempo two days later thanks to its stout defense, leading to a 3-0 shutout of Vanderbilt. The Commodores (3-1) managed only three shots on goal the entire game.
The Knights capitalized on three of their 19 shots with a goal in the 50th minute by senior forward Stefanie Scholz and a pair of goals by Pietrangelo in the 64th and 88th minutes.
“We’re playing very well. It’s just not a mentality of a back four [defenders], it’s a mentality of 11,” O’Neill said of the entire team working as one defensively. “But the responsibility, in the end, falls upon that back four because they’re the last in line. We’re very happy with our mentality and not allowing serves, not allowing shots and obviously the biggest thing to talk about is no goals.”
After a slow start against Seton Hall (1-2), Rutgers began to dictate the tempo, firing 13 shots on goal compared to the Pirates’ five. The opportunities were there — it was just a matter of time for the Knights to capitalize with a goal.
That moment came in the 34th minute.
Sophomore forward Jessica Puchalski took matters into her own hands, single-handedly weaving her way through the backline of the Pirates defense.
Seton Hall goalkeeper Gina Maiorana came up out of the net attempting to cut her off, but Puchalski was one step ahead. The forward cut sharply to her left and fired a shot into the back of the net, giving the Knights a 1-0 lead they would not relinquish.
“Cassie was pressuring the ball from the right and then I saw that she forced it, and I kind of read the pass,” Puchalski said. “Then — I don’t know what happened — but I picked it off and I got past the goalie.”
Puchalski’s recent play has caught the eye of O’Neill, despite that being her first goal of the young season.
“She’s crafty,” O’Neill said. “She’s playing very well. She’s got a great mentality to go to the goal, whether that is [by] herself or early balls passed into the box.”
Senior defender Erica Skroski was a key player on defense, preventing Seton Hall from any opportunistic plays. Skroski believed mental and physical endurance kept Rutgers on top and kept the shutout intact.
“Seton Hall’s always the huge in-state rival, so it’s physical,” Skroski said. “As a back four and as a team, we stuck together as a unit because at certain times it was frantic. We rushed things we shouldn’t have, but at the end we stuck it out and we came out with the ‘W,’ so I think that shows a lot.”
More importantly, the senior speaks for her teammates when she describes the optimism surrounding the team after it’s third consecutive 3-0 start to the year.
“We’re starting to prove our statement,” Skroski said. “Last year we had a thing where we don’t lose on our home field and I think that we’re continuing that this year, as well as no goals on our home field, and I think we’re on our way.”
O’Neill, who has been around the program for 14 years as an assistant and now head coach, evidently felt the same.
“It is very early but I like what we’re doing on both sides of the ball, I really do. I like the depth of the team,” he said. “I think this was a game that we needed because we didn’t play our best but we still need to find a way to win these games when it’s not our best. I think that’s the sign of a good team.”
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