Sturdy defense paces Rutgers as backbone of team
Bear Bryant, a Hall of Fame football coach for Alabama, once said, “offense sells tickets, but defense wins championships.”
Trophies and champagne will be flowing to the Rutgers women's soccer team if Bryant’s saying is true.
The Scarlet Knights’ (7-1-2, 2-0-1) defense has been nothing short of spectacular this season with seven shutouts in 10 games.
Rutgers has not allowed a goal in six consecutive matches, a stretch that includes a streak of more than 200 minutes without conceding a shot on goal.
The back line of freshmen Chantelle Swaby and Amanda Visco, sophomore Kenie Wright and senior captain Erin Smith has been able to maintain the level of last season's team despite having little time to build chemistry.
After making it all the way to the College Cup — the soccer version of the NCAA Tournament Final Four — last year, the Knights had to rebound quickly after the loss of many seniors that made up the nucleus of the team.
Visco and Swaby have stepped in beautifully and have Rutgers right back where it expects to be — competing for a Big Ten championship.
“We have high expectations as a unit,” Visco said. “Us defenders are constantly working to build stronger relationships and improve our trust and communication.”
That intense focus on team camaraderie has clearly panned out, as the defense has been the Knights’ most impressive piece leading them to a 7-2-1 start.
As nicely as the back line has been playing, some of the credit has to go to head coach Mike O’Neill and the rest of the staff for their game plan.
“Our defensive line is great and we’re really proud of them, but the success starts in the front with quality ball denial by our forwards and midfielders," O’Neill said. “It’s truly a group effort and that’s something we stress in practice all the time.”
The strategic concentration has been doing wonders, as Rutgers has been a thorn in almost every team’s side.
The Knights have not permitted more than one goal in regulation time in any game this entire campaign.
A few of the main reasons the defense has seen so much success besides their incredible talent are the determination and supreme work ethic they demonstrate every day in training.
“We focus on the details in practice to improve our positioning come game time,” Wright said. “We try to always be on the same page, so when one of us moves up for a run into the attacking third, the rest of us drop back to cover.”
Wright, Swaby, Visco and Smith are in consistent communication on the field, rendering them aware of each other’s locations at all times.
That awareness allows them to not only prevent the opponents from getting quality looks at the Rutgers net, but also affords the defenders the opportunity to shine on the offensive side of the ball.
Visco even has a goal to her name this season, which came against Saint Joseph’s in the nonconference portion of the schedule.
The Knights barely pulled that one out with the Manalapan, New Jersey, native’s score being the lone goal in a 1-0 victory.
Besides game-winning goals, there have been other ways the back line has been recognized.
After leading Rutgers to back-to-back clean sheets against Northwestern and Illinois this past weekend, Smith was named to TopDrawerSoccer.com’s Team of the Week.
She repeatedly paced the Knights on both ends of the pitch, displaying her excellent speed, ball skills and tackling ability.
Smith also played every second of both games, adding up to 200 minutes total.
“I’m going to do anything I can to help the team win,” said Smith. “If that means not resting, then so be it.”
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