Rutgers reflects on historic season
When former Rutgers head women’s soccer coach Glenn Crooks abruptly stepped down prior to the season in late July, he left the program with big shoes to fill.
Luckily for the Scarlet Knights, Mike O’Neill wore the same size.
After 14 years as an assistant on Crooks’ staff, O’Neill received the keys to the program and drove it to further than it’s ever been before.
In his first year at the helm, O’Neill guided Rutgers to a 13-6-1 overall record, and he did so in arguably the most competitive women’s soccer conference in the country. Following a loss on the road to Maryland, the team made a splash in the Big Ten.
The Knights went undefeated in their next eight matches, ripping off seven wins and drawing in their lone tie of the season at Nebraska, 1-1.
Despite dropping four of their last five games leading up to the NCAA Tournament’s selection, the Knights found their way into the field of 64 teams and proved that they belonged in their conference.
This came after many doubted Rutgers could make the transition to an upper-echelon soccer conference and compete right away. Even after reaching the NCAA Tournament last year and returning their core players, the Knights were picked to finish eighth in the Big Ten.
But for O’Neill, that made the success of the season that much sweeter.
“[The players] were so eager to learn. When we look back and were picked to finished 8th or 9th in the Big Ten and we finish third … when [the players] look back on the year, I think they realize the successful year they had,” he said. “With the work habits and the discipline and the brand of soccer they played, it was pretty special.”
Also in her first year in a new position, Meghan Ryan worked extensively with O’Neill and the players to make the 2014 campaign a memorable one.
The associate head coach and former Rutgers defender mentored a defensive backline that ranked among the best in the nation for much of the season with 11 shutouts and a .068 shot percentage.
“I think the biggest thing was how much [the players] wanted to get better,” Ryan said. “They made it an initiative to put in the work, and with the work of the coaching staff to go with that, they made this a special year.”
While the Knights didn’t blow opponents out of the water on the offensive side of the ball, the distribution in scoring came from a wide spectrum of players.
Senior forward Stef Scholz served as the team’s leading scorer, netting seven goals and four game-winners on the year to culminate 16 total points.
Reflecting on her final year, Scholz labeled the historic year as the most memorable of her career.
“This was definitely my favorite year by far. We exceeded a lot of expectations — no one expected us to do what we did this year,” she said. “… To finish fourth and then beat Penn State and then be one of three [Big Ten] teams to advance in the NCAA Tournament just shows that Rutgers had a really big impact in the Big Ten this year.”
Along with Scholz, Rutgers loses forward Amy Pietrangelo, midfielder Cassie Inacio, midfielder Brielle Buis and defender Tori Leigh all to graduation.
With a solid core of remaining players returning next season, the goals of winning the Big Ten and advancing deep into the NCAA Tournament to compete for a national championship both remain attainable.
But for O’Neill, saying goodbye to five players who have grown family-like ties over the past four years is the hardest part to turning the page on the season.
“When you’re a part of something and you have to ask yourself when the time is over or your time is done there: Is the program a better place because you came to Rutgers University?” O’Neill said. “And for the seniors, the answer to that is absolutely because they came here — and that’s what you’re looking for. That’s what you’re looking to accomplish, so I’m going to miss them a lot.”
Scholz and her classmates made it an initiative to carry out that vision.
“The program is completely different now than it was when I was a freshman,” Scholz said. “And the senior class as a whole, that was kind of our goal when we came here. We wanted to change the program, and I think we did that, so I would consider it a successful four years here.”
Without those seniors serving as leaders for next year, O’Neill admitted it would be a key loss to the team.
At the same time, O’Neill made it clear of what to expect out of his team this time next year.
“They’re good players, but they’re better people. … I can’t thank the players enough for all their hard work and the coaching staff and the support we got,” he said. “We look back on it and say it was a very successful year, and we want to get back to this stage and beyond every year. That’s the goal.”
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