Rutgers impresses in first Big Ten season
When Glenn Crooks stepped down in late July of last summer, the all-time winningest coach in the Rutgers women’s soccer team history left the program with more questions than answers.
After 14 years and 200 wins as the head coach of the Scarlet Knights, Crooks stepped down and Mike O’Neill stepped in.
Despite spending all 14 years alongside Crooks on the staff as an assistant — 10 years as the associate head coach — who could tell what was in store for the rookie head coach and his team as it entered the nation’s premiere women’s soccer conference in the Big Ten?
But by the season’s end, O’Neill and the Knights put any doubts to rest. Rutgers made a splash in the Big Ten and sent shockwaves throughout the country, soaring to a ranking as high as No. 14 in the nation with a 13-6-1 overall record.
Behind the guidance of the first-year head coach, clutch play in key moments and a defense that blossomed as the season progressed to become a virtually impenetrable wall, the Knights pieced together a season that earns them the Daily Targum Team of the Year Award for the 2014-15 sports year.
Despite a drop off in production to end the season with just two wins in the team’s last seven matches, what Rutgers collectively accomplished over the course of the fall — and in the historic fashion the program did so — trumps any reason for disappointment.
Aside from losing their veteran head coach just over a week before reporting to preseason training camp, the Knights opened a four-way competition for the starting goalkeeper gig before freshman Casey Murphy ultimately seized the position.
While Rutgers returned majority of a squad that posted a 13-4-5 overall mark on its way to an appearance in the finals of the American Athletic Conference Tournament and an at-large berth to the NCAA Tournament in 2013, placing its faith in an untested freshman under the direction of a new head coach could have left reason for uncertainty.
But when the Knights took the field, they let their play answer every single question that could have been thrown their way.
Before the regular season even began, Rutgers made a pair of statements. In their opening scrimmage against West Virginia, a rematch from a first-round heartbreaker where the Knights dropped a 3-0 match in penalty kicks down in Morgantown, they responded with a 4-2 victory in Piscataway.
After recording a 4-0 shutout over Villanova days later, Rutgers carried its momentum right into the regular season. The Knights raced out to tie the best start in program history, winning their first four games by outscoring the opposition, 12-1.
But the true test began when Big Ten play started — and at first, things didn’t carry over.
Rutgers returned from a road trip down to College Park, Maryland, hanging its head after suffering a disappointing 2-0 loss to a mediocre Maryland team (5-7-6, 3-5-5).
But to the Knights’ fortune, their season trended upwards from that point.
Rutgers went on to win seven of its next eight matches — six of which were shutouts — on its way to catapult itself into elite status.
Entering hostile territory against a No. 6 Penn State team that sat atop the Big Ten standings with an undefeated conference record, the Knights faced their tallest task of the season.
Rutgers didn’t blink.
Ninety minutes of action later, the Knights had dethroned the Nittany Lions in a 1-0 shutout.
“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,” said senior forward Stef Scholz after the season. “… 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.”
Penn State, which had been averaging 2.85 goals per game, couldn’t find the back of the net. Behind the defensive efforts of a backline anchored by junior defenders Erica Skroski and Brianna Reed, coupled with a series of key saves by Murphy, the Knights left Happy Valley with a statement win to leave the team in the driver’s seat of the Big Ten.
Despite suffering a 1-0 overtime loss on Senior Day to a lowly Northwestern squad, Rutgers was almost unstoppable on its home turf with a program-record 9-1 mark at Yurcak Field.
While the Knights didn’t exactly light it up on offense, they received production when they needed to. Scholz ended an illustrious career on the banks with a team-high seven goals, followed by sophomore midfielder Madison Tiernan’s six goals and three assists.
Rutgers suffered an early exit in the Big Ten Tournament with a first round defeat at the hands of Iowa, but found its way into the NCAA Tournament with their second consecutive at-large bid.
After handling LaSalle at home, 2-0, the Knights put up a fight against No. 4 Virginia with a scoreless first half. But the Cavaliers proved why they led the nation in goals per game, breaking through in the second period with three quick goals to end Rutgers' season in the second round of the tourney.
But looking back on how far they had come, O’Neill and his team had no regrets.
With one year under his belt and 25 out of last year’s 30 players on the roster returning, the Knights can expect to only be better.
“(The players) were so eager to learn,” O’Neill said at the end of the season. “When we look back and were picked to finished eighth or ninth 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. With the work habits and the discipline and the brand of soccer they played, it was pretty special.”