Assistant fosters successful defense
Meghan Ryan remembers the days when she laced up her cleats and trotted out onto Yurcak Field, as the cheers from the Scarlet faithful residing in the stands resonated from the bleachers.
Not too long ago, Ryan was a center back for the Rutgers women’s soccer team. A natural-born leader, Ryan pushed for playing time immediately and served as a three-year co-captain beginning in the fall of her sophomore year.
The Annapolis, Maryland, native joined the Scarlet Knights due to the culture that then-associate head coach Mike O’Neill instilled along with then-head coach Glenn Crooks.
After buying into that mentality as a player, Ryan wanted to continue to preach it as a coach.
“It just came down to the habits that they instilled in me and then they believed in me,” Ryan said, referring to the coaching staff upon her arrival as a player. “… I think that’s carried over to me as a coach.”
Working primarily with the defensive backline she once anchored for four years from 2004 to 2007, she has had a goal of taking the team’s defense to new heights.
Ranking among the best in the Big Ten in terms of goals allowed and shutouts, Ryan has been able to see that vision manifest in her first season as the program’s associate head coach.
“Since I came back, it’s made it very clear that we don’t give up goals. That’s why I decided to come to Rutgers [as a coach] — because I wanted to make sure we continued that,” Ryan said. “The biggest thing for [the players] is making sure they know that and they finally understand the New Jersey pride that they’re having with getting shutouts, because a lot of people are talking about them.”
When O’Neill brought Ryan onto his coaching staff as a volunteer immediately after she graduated, he saw her ability to directly relate to the players as an advantage to her coaching style.
“I think it’s so important when you’re a coach to have those habits as a player that people respect, and as a player, she worked hard, she worked at her game,” O’Neill said. “… She has such a good relationship with the players, she went here, she loves it, so I think that’s an added bonus, but the staff here is good at what they do, and she’s good at what she does.”
Junior backers Erica Skroski and Brianne Reed are two starters on the backline who have bought into Ryan’s defensive schemes. The two have picked the brain of the player-turned-coach, and the success that has translated onto the field shows it.
“She’s been there, she’s done that,” Skroski said. “She knows what pressure situations [are], she knows you have to be composed, you have to see the whole field, know what’s in front of you, know what the keeper’s doing behind you. So it’s awesome to have someone that’s not only played there, but played there a few years ago on the same team, on the same field, in the same uniform. So, that’s definitely awesome to be a part of.”
Reed likes the attention to detail the Knights take pride in knowing with their defense. With Ryan on the coaching staff, Rutgers stands out as a program that has a former star and experienced player leading its defense now from the sidelines as a coach.
“I don’t know about other schools, but I think it’s rare because we have a defensive coach whenever we have questions concerning how to organize ourselves against a team,” Reed said. “We get specific information, specific to the other team’s forward line and how our defense is going to handle it. That’s why I think it’s such a big advantage to us.”
While most teams focus solely on its offensive attack, Rutgers predicates itself on a balanced focus between offense and defense. With Ryan, Reed said the Knights are able to establish balance and find that common ground.
“To have someone that’s going to focus solely on our tactics … being able to have our [midfielders] know how we’re going to play [on defense], to organize that together makes it so much easier to play and have so much more chemistry between our defense,” she said.
As a junior in 2006, Ryan led Rutgers to a 16-3-4 record where the team allowed just six goals and posted a school-record 16 shutouts.
So far this season, Ryan has the team on the right track. The Knights boast a No. 23 ranking in the most recent NCSAA Top 25 poll, with a 11-4-1 mark overall and 7-4-1 record in the Big Ten Conference, which is widely regarded as the best women’s soccer league in the country.
As Rutgers continues to approach its final games of the season with the postseason looming, Ryan hopes to continue her efforts of guiding the program to new achievements in a season of firsts.
Looking back on the season to this point, the idea that the first time is the sweetest certainly holds true.
“To me, it’s a fairytale right now,” Ryan said. “If you told me 15 years ago, ‘You’re still going to be here, [and] you’re going to be associate head coach coaching in the Big Ten with one of the best teams in the conference,’ I probably would’ve smiled and laughed.”
For the long-time player and assistant coach, how far this season goes depends on the basic principles of hard work, trust and belief she and O’Neill have preached since the days where she was the one sprinting up and down the field at the center back position.
“[Because] Mike [trusted] me with the backs, I don’t want to let him down. And on the flipside, I don’t want to let the girls down either,” Ryan said. “I do a lot of the film, I do a lot of the attacking players on the opponents [and] I try to give the girls enough information. But [due to] the support and the belief that not only Rutgers but Mike and the team has … I don’t want to let anyone down. That’s the biggest thing.”
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