Rutgers leaves mark, makes history in first Big Ten season
The fate of the Rutgers women’s soccer team’s 2014 season was in jeopardy before it even had the chance to begin.
After 14 years of running the program, then-head coach Glenn Crooks abruptly stepped down from his position on July 23 and passed the torch onto Mike O’Neill.
While many on the outside wondered how the Scarlet Knights would fare without the second-winningest coach in program history, members of the team never had a single doubt.
It was an unpredictable and historic season.
In a new conference where it was predicted to finish in eighth place, Rutgers defied the odds. By their fifth game of the season, the Knights crept into the NSCAA Top 25 and shot up the poll to a ranking as high as No. 14 in the country.
It featured wide-open competition that starting goalkeeper Casey Murphy seized, proceeding to break out with consecutive Big Ten Co-Defensive Player of the Week Honors and a selection to the All-Big Ten Freshman team in a season where she sported a .829 save percentage.
Murphy headlined a defensive unit that climbed its way into the discussion as the best in the nation. Accompanied by junior defenders Brianne Reed and Erica Skroski, both of who garnered All-Big Ten honors at the end of the season, Murphy and the Knights accounted for 11 shutouts.
It included a pair of electric scorers: one a proven senior leader in forward Stef Scholz and the other a rising star in sophomore midfielder Madison Tiernan. When the team needed it most, one or the other showed up, combining for seven game-winning goals.
It had adversity. After an eight-game unbeaten streak that featured 1-0 triumphs over Michigan State, Michigan, on the road at Iowa and in hostile territory at then-No. 7 Penn State, the wheels came off for Rutgers.
At 11-1-1, the Knights were tied for their best start in program history and on the verge of completing an undefeated season on their home field for the first time since 1987.
But on Senior Day, Northwestern stunned the sea of scarlet in attendance at Yurcak Field with a goal in the 98th minute of overtime, and the season began to spiral down.
The Knights left their NCAA Tournament fate in jeopardy, dropping four of their last five matches to end the regular season and Big Ten Tournament.
But just as the Knights had been in every tight match they survived, luck was on their side. O’Neill’s squad snuck into the NCAAs and fed off the energy of a win-or-go-home atmosphere, earning a No. 7 seed and downing No. 10 La Salle in the first round.
The win set the stage for a showdown with an offense that led the nation in scoring with 3.48 goals per game, but Rutgers didn’t budge.
For one half, the Knights scrapped and battled with No. 2 Virginia to a scoreless tie at halftime. But the Cavaliers finally broke through in the second half, scoring two goals in the span of 40 seconds and eventually seize the match, 3-0.
Despite the heartache, O’Neill and his players held their heads high.
No one expected them to get this far. Their Big Ten peers disrespected them before they even touched the field.
But when the Knights looked back on their season from beginning to end, the successes, triumphs and history formed were exactly what they intended to do all along.