Although the football and basketball teams have not had banner years, seemingly every other Rutgers athletic team has experienced great success -- but more importantly, improvement.
The 4 most successful sports at Rutgers are women's soccer, wrestling, men's lacrosse (so far), and men's soccer. The T&F teams have also experienced impressive individual success. However, we will focus on the 4 nationally ranked teams for this article. If there is one common denominator amongst Rutgers' 4 nationally ranked (two top-10) teams, it is the stardom and leadership of New Jersey athletes.
RU is 1 of 2 universities to have men's & women's soccer, wrestling & men's lacrosse ranked in 2015-16 coaches polls pic.twitter.com/m1Qct524t0— Rutgers Athletics (@RUAthletics) March 3, 2016
I have said before that fans wouldn't complain if Rutgers football had a top recruiting class of kids from any state but NJ. However, after looking at the success of these 4 teams, it is pretty evident that New Jersey recruiting is more important than I previously thought.
When you think of women's soccer, three star players come to mind: GK Casey Murphy, D Brianne Reed, and Erica Skroski.
Casey Murphy hails from central Jersey power Bridgewater Raritan. As a sophomore, Murphy was the best GK in the B1G and one of the top GK in the nation. Brianne Reed comes from South Jersey parochial Red Bank Catholic. She won the 2015 Senior CLASS Award and was drafted into the NWSL with Erica Skroski. Skroski comes from Absegami High School, also in South Jersey. She recently competed in and won the Istria Cup with the USWNT U-23 squad. The 2 center backs and goalkeeper, aka the nucleus of the soccer team comes exclusively from The Garden State. The women's soccer team finished the season ranked #4 in the nation.
Even though they still have NCAA Championships this season, the wrestling team has shown incredible improvement and success in only their second year in the B1G, the hardest wrestling conference in the country by a mile. In 2015, the team finished 11th at B1G Championships with only 20.5 points. In 2016, the Knights jumped up 6 spots to finish 5th overall with 106.5 points. That is an 86 point improvement, more than 8 B1G teams had at this year's competition. This year, Anthony Ashnault became the first Rutgers wrestler to ever win a B1G championship and did so in dominating fashion over a Penn State foe.
What may be even more impressive is that all 10 wrestlers qualified for NCAAs, with Rutgers joining Nebraska and Oklahoma State as the only teams to accomplish that rare feat.
Let's take a closer look at this elite group of grapplers.
125 - Sean McCabe | Ronkonkoma, NY
133 - Anthony Giraldo | North Bergen, NJ
141- Anthony Ashnault | South Plainfield, NJ
149 - Tyson Dippery | Harrisburg, PA
157 - Richie Lewis | Toms River, NJ
165 - Anthony Perrotti | Roseland, NJ
174 - Phil Bakuckas | Hammonton, NJ
184 - Nick Gravina | Allendale, NJ
197 - Hayden Hrymack | Point Pleasant, NJ
HWT - Billy Smith | Wantage, NJ
Take note that 8 of the 10 wrestlers are in boldface denoting their home state being New Jersey. The face alone that Rutgers is sending 8 New Jersey wrestlers to NCAA Championships is an incredible and rare accomplishment. Not to mention their B1G Champion is an NJ native with 2 years of eligibility remaining. Scott Goodale has built this program to the verge of being a national power by recruiting NJ's best and getting NJ's best to stay home. Anthony Ashnault is one of the top 5 NJ high school wrestlers in HISTORY and decided to stay home. Football players take note, because it paid off.
The men's lacrosse team is sitting pretty at #16 in the country and a 5-0 record. They face 18th ranked Stony Brook on Friday in what will be their biggest game to date. It is hard to imagine that last year, this team went 5-10 and it took a season finale shocker over #10 Ohio State to get win number five. Less than a month into the 2016 campaign, the Scarlet Knights have already matched their win total from a year ago. The Scarlet Knights will face a tough schedule, with matchups against ranked teams such as Stony Brook, Johns Hopkins, Maryland, and Penn State.
When the season started, Head Coach Brian Becht elected to name only one captain, Scott Bieda. Bieda comes from Bridgewater-Raritan High School in of course, New Jersey. In addition, as of March 2nd, the Rutgers starting attack led the nation in combined goals.
The trio consists of Bieda, Adam Charalambides (Canada), and Jules Heningburg (Seton Hall Prep, NJ). Lacrosse is a sport that is spiking in popularity in New Jersey, as it is quickly becoming the go-to sport in suburban neighborhoods all over the state. In coming years, New Jersey will be right up there with states like Maryland in terms of Lacrosse talent. If Becht can continue to get the right players from New Jersey, this team will consistently be at the top of the B1G.
The most improved team in the Rutgers Athletic Department was without a doubt the men's soccer team. In 2014, they were 6-12-1 and only mustered one conference victory in OT against Wisconsin. This year, they went 12-7-2 and had 4 conference victories, quadrupling their total from their inagural year in the B1G. They also advanced to the conference semifinals before losing to the top seed, Ohio State. More importantly, the team made it to the NCAA Tournament, where they made it to the second round, only to be eliminated by Final Four team Akron. They finished the season ranked #23.
The star of the team was without a doubt forward Jason Wright, who is from Jamaica. However, there was without a doubt a strong New Jersey presence on the pitch for Rutgers. They were anchored by goalkeeper David Greczek, who is a Fairfield, NJ native. The midfield was paced by senior JP Correa of Montville and Erik "Rutger" Sa of Watchung. Although the nucleus of the men's soccer team isn't exclusively NJ natives, their 2015 roster was chock full of New Jersey natives.
The team was led by NJ native and 2015 B1G Coach of the Year, Dan Donigan. New Jersey has some of the best soccer around and Donigan has done a good job in his 6 years at the helm of the Scarlet Knights of acquiring loads of depth and impact players from New Jersey. The only thing the soccer team seems to be lacking is a Jersey kid being the face of the program, but that could all change at any moment.
This all ties back to football since that is the sport that gets the most backlash (deservedly so) for not recruiting New Jersey well. Quite frankly, Kyle Flood was a hot mess when recruiting the Garden State and had numerous opportunities to close the deal on kids and never got the job done.
Hopefully Chris Ash can put an end to Rutgers being embarassed on the New Jersey recruiting scene. It is clear that keeping the top Jersey kids home goes hand in hand with success. Let's hope Ash and the football staff can follow in the footsteps of the "Big 4".