Rutgers adjust to Big Ten travel
Being from New Jersey leaves the Rutgers women’s soccer team on the outside looking in.
With the exception of Maryland, the Scarlet Knights are the only team forced to accommodate to long and grueling weekend travels.
The usual road trip kicks off with a flight toward the center of the country out in the Midwest for the first game of the set, followed by hopping on a coach bus for hours to the next and final destination in the second leg.
For every member of the program, the protocol is new.
Playing in the Big East and AAC catered to the convenience of playing regional teams closer to New Jersey.
But in the first Big Ten season, the heightened competition in conjunction with the longer travels presented a challenge for head coach Mike O’Neill and his players.
“There’s so much that goes on. The traveling is what it is, and there’s nothing we can do about that because we play in the Big Ten, which is the top athletic conference in the country and it’s new to us,” O’Neill said. “We’re not going to make any excuses. … It is what it is, and we’ll be good to go.”
Despite a three-game losing streak, O’Neill has handled his team skillfully in his first year calling the shots. The Knights have been ranked as high as No. 14 in the NCSAA Top 25 with a strong 11-4-1 overall record and 7-4-1 mark in conference play to support the team’s success.
Throughout the season, and especially as of late, the lengthy travel hasn’t been easy. When Rutgers has returned home, the team has been nearly unbeatable, nearly going undefeated at Yurcak Field for the first time since 1987 with an 8-1 record.
Senior forward Stef Scholz gave some insight into how tolling the Big Ten road games could add up to be.
“I think the biggest thing is the traveling between games,” Scholz said, referring to bus rides immediately after games that lasted up to five hours. “… It’s just a lot of being on a plane and bus.”
In order for the players to keep their legs fresh between games, Scholz said they take to the pool for workouts, in addition to plenty of stretching and rest to prevent any fatigue.
On top of the physical fatigue that can ensue during a road trip, mental fatigue could also be a taxing element for a college student-athlete.
As sophomore backer Erin Smith pointed out with Sunday’s match at Minnesota, it’s quite the journey from Piscataway to Minneapolis (1,200 miles), and playing far away from home almost every other weekend is something the Knights had to adapt to this year.
To stay positive, Smith zones in and focuses on the 90 minutes of soccer that await.
“I don’t know — I guess I just tell myself that it doesn’t matter if I’m home or away,” Smith said. “I still need to play the best that I can, and I can’t make excuses like, ‘Oh, I didn’t play well because I was on a bus or I was on a plane.’ I have to put that behind me and focus.”
Part of what eases the reality of being pushed so far out of their comfort zone at home for most players on the team is the outpouring of support Rutgers has received on the road.
“It helps a lot to see that we have such a huge fan base and that we have parents that really care,” Smith said. “… We know it’s hard sometimes to catch a flight to [somewhere as far as] Nebraska, but a majority of parents did come. … It makes you want to play better.”
Following the Knights’ 1-0 upset at then-No. 7 Penn State, the contingent of Scarlet faithful that awaited the team at the coach bus with applause, cheers and hugs set up a pleasant ride back home.
For Scholz, it’s little things such as the trip home from Happy Valley after Rutgers’ statement win that make her senior season unforgettable. After the game, the team partied its way east-bound on Interstate-80, blasting music and dancing along with O’Neill and associate head coach Meghan Ryan.
“We’re really close on the field and off the field. Sometimes when you spend time 24/7 with people, you get tired of them,” Scholz said. “But we never get tired of each other. We’re always talking and laughing, so we always make it fun. That’s what I’m going to miss the most — the team. … I’m going to miss that time off the field with them.”
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