Ali leading Rutgers to uncharted heights
It all started back on Sept. 16 when a long diagonal cross found the back of the net in the final 12 seconds of double overtime.
It was a shot that delivered the Rutgers women’s soccer team its first conference win of 2018 against Iowa, and a moment that head coach Mike O’Neill said could be the start of something for his team.
When sophomore forward Amirah Ali hit the golden goal in a must-win conference game against the Hawkeyes, it was not only a moment that started something for the Scarlet Knights (9-2-5, 5-1-3), it essentially set the blueprint that the team has gone back to for every win since.
In the past month, Ali has come up with the game-winning goal in overtime in all but one of the team’s victories and has taken center stage in the national spotlight as the top scorer in the Big Ten.
“The bigger the game, the bigger she plays,” O’Neill said. “I think you can measure a career based on your impact in close matches, and I would have to say from the time she was 5 ... you can go back and see the history of Amirah Ali and in those moments, you know she’s gonna come through.”
A 5-year-old Ali was first introduced to soccer from watching her older brother Jameel and having to be carried off the field by her parents during his matches. When the Voorhees, N.J. native got the chance to take the field for herself, she quickly established herself as one of the top players in the state and by her senior year in high school, her reputation had gone national.
In her four-year career at Eastern Regional High School under head coach Jamie McGourty, Ali broke the school record for most goals scored in a single season during her junior year with 36. She then set the career mark a year later with 99 career goals scored.
Her prowess as a scorer earned her All-American honors for three straight years and the NSCAA National High School Player of the Year title.
“(McGourty) just helped me with my mentality. Being able to work through when things aren't going my way. To just pick my game back up and stay focused,” Ali said. “Going into high school freshman year ... he encouraged me even though I was one of the younger ones on the varsity team, to keep pushing hard. It didn’t matter what age I was, he still wanted me to step up and be a leader for the team. I feel like coming here I kind of had the same role.”
Ali was first introduced to O’Neill and Rutgers through alumnus Madison Tiernan and her family. Like Ali, Tiernan was also a decorated player at Eastern Regional who came to the Banks to become a top player in the Big Ten.
“I started to watch Amirah when she was a freshman in high school because she went to the same school as Madison Tiernan, so I’ve had a chance to watch her for the last six years maybe. You just knew there was something special about her as a person and as a player,” O’Neill said.
When Ali made her debut as a Knight last year, she wasted no time putting her talents on display in the collegiate landscape. As a freshman, Ali tallied 6 goals and five assists, winning the Big Ten Freshman of the Year and making the All-Big Ten Third Team and Big Ten All-Freshman team.
In a game against then-No. 12 Wisconsin, Ali flashed her big game clutch factor that has been apparent so many times this season. Ali hit the game winner 26 seconds into overtime to deliver one of the biggest upset wins of that year.
“Freshman year I had to lead as much as I could. Mike (O'Neill) had me lead the freshman class, trying to help everyone get through it,” Ali said. “There’s a lot of strength in the Big Ten, a lot of big players in the Big Ten, so it's just a matter of being focused on how to deal with how they hold you, how they foul you and how to play through those things.”
In her sophomore campaign, Ali has been the difference maker on a team that has been at or near the top of the conference all season. The streak of nine consecutive overtime games is the longest streak in program history, and the undefeated start that Rutgers got off to over the first eight conference games is the best start to conference play for the program since joining the Big Ten.
Since the start of Big Ten play, Ali has scored more goals than the rest of her teammates combined, and is the only Knight on her team to score at all in the past four games. Ali’s goals this season have played a part in determining every conference game that Rutgers has played this season as the team is undefeated whenever she scores.
For a team that has had a hard time finding balance and efficiency on offense this year, Ali has been the one constant that has carried the Knights to a string of close wins. Not a single one of Ali’s conference leading 10 goals have come in garbage-time like moments, as each of her goals have had a critical impact on the course of the season, whether they are in overtime or near the end of regulation.
While the overtime and undefeated streak is now officially over following the recent loss to Penn State, the postseason is looming over Ali and the rest of the team with only two games left in the regular season. O’Neill will look to lean on Ali and her knack for late game heroics when the games start to matter the most in November.
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