Rutgers builds program, women's soccer game further in second Big Ten season
With the eyes of the soccer world centered on the World Cup-winning United States Women’s National Team led by Rutgers alumnus Carli Lloyd, it has been an exciting summer for the Rutgers women’s soccer team.
Along with watching Lloyd win the Golden Ball Trophy — awarded to the best player in the tournament — en route to the country’s first World Cup since 1999, current Rutgers goalkeeper Casey Murphy capitalized on her dominant freshman season by starting five games for the United States women’s national under-20 soccer team.
The sophomore now enters her second season in net for the Scarlet Knights with international experience to go along with Big Ten All-Freshmen Team honors, setting her up for what could potentially be an even bigger year.
“I’ve been working on all aspects of my game and have luckily been able to play with the (under-20) national team, so I’ve gotten tremendous coaching and experience there,” Murphy said. “I’m looking forward to seeing all the training and experience be put into action for this year.”
In their inaugural Big Ten season, the Knights finished among the top of the conference with an 8-4 mark in conference play to accompany a 13-6-1 overall record.
Last year also marked the first season for Mike O’Neill as the team’s head coach after serving as an assistant for 14 years under longtime head coach Glenn Crooks.
While the transition to the head coaching spot can be a difficult one, O’Neill credits his players for helping him ease into the position during a pivotal year for the program in an elite soccer conference.
“I learned a lot last year and really had to work on improving the things I already knew and putting them into place,” he said. “It was different being the head coach rather than the associate head coach, but the team did a great job in helping me out with everything.”
O’Neill inherited a talented roster and helped elevate several players to have outstanding seasons for Rutgers.
Defender Brianne Reed, now a senior, was named First Team All-Big Ten last season, while fellow classmates Erica Skroski and Hayley Katkowski earned Second Team honors.
A Westford, Massachusetts, native, Katkowski is a two-time captain and has started all 64 matches of her career at Rutgers, providing vital experience on the field as a proven leader for the Knights.
“These last couple of years we’ve been really trying to prove ourselves and we’ve tried to take advantage of opportunities,” she said. “We came out strong last year and are looking to continue to make a name for ourselves in the Big Ten and elsewhere.”
It is in the Big Ten where Rutgers started to realize how well it can fare against some of the best competition in the country.
After falling to Maryland in their first conference contest, the Knights ripped off an eight-match unbeaten streak (7-0-1), including an upset victory at then-No. 6 Penn State after junior forward Madison Tiernan scored the lone goal in the 1-0 win.
This stretch culminated with the Knights achieving their highest national ranking of the season at No. 7 in the country, and gives them a huge boost of confidence heading into their second season in the Big Ten.
“The ultimate goal this year is to win the Big Ten Championship,” said Murphy. “Ever since last season, we’ve really had our eyes set on that, and we believe that if we continue to improve we can accomplish that this year.”
Along with the aforementioned standouts on the roster, several other players give O’Neill and the program reasons to be excited about the upcoming season.
The Knights return all five defensive starters, including Murphy, Reed, Skroski, to go along with a pair of backs in senior Maggie Morash and junior Erin Smith.
Tiernan, the team’s leading scorer, returns for her third year alongside Katkowski and senior Sam Valliant in the midfield.
O’Neill knows how pivotal Tiernan is for the team, as the Knights will count on her for more scoring in big games this season.
“Madison Tiernan will be very important again this year with scoring some goals for us,” he said. “Hayley Katkowski has also been one of the most consistent players in our program over the past few years, so we have high expectations for her, as well.”
The rest of the senior class consists of forward Rachel Cole, goalkeeper Alana Jimenez, defenders Erica Sousa and Cassidy Benintente, and midfielder Gabby Moreno.
These players provide O’Neill with the belief that Rutgers can elevate to a powerhouse on the national level.
After a strong debut in their new conference that stretched all the way to November in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, the Knights could be on the brink of something special.
“We have done a lot over the years trying to build a reputation in the women’s game,” O’Neill said. “Having gone into the Big Ten and having some success there, I’m not sure what people thought of us, but I know more people will be prepared for us this year … and that’s a good thing because we want to be a team on an opponent’s schedule that they look forward to playing.”
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