The Rutgers women’s soccer team is set to open an extremely important home stand in which they play the top two ranked teams in the Big Ten in a four day period. The Scarlet Knights take on #13th ranked Penn State (9-3-1; 5-1-1) on Thursday, conference champions in 18 of the past 19 seasons, before hosting #12 Ohio State (11-2-1; 6-1-0), who currently sit atop the Big Ten standings. Rutgers has a 9-2-3 record overall this season and are tied for fifth place in the conference with a 3-2-2 record. If they want to keep their chance to win the regular season title alive, they must win both of these games.
In addition, these two games are important for the program’s NCAA Tournament chances as well. The most recent RPI rankings came out on October 8th and Rutgers is in a solid position, currently rated 20th in the country. The only two Big Ten teams ranked higher are Penn State at 14th and Ohio State at 16th. While Rutgers has had a very good season so far and in good position to make their sixth consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance, they are still looking for a signature win. Both opponents in next few days offer that opportunity and would greatly strengthen their resume for postseason play. The highest ranked opponent Rutgers has beaten this season is Wisconsin (9-3-2; 3-2-2), who are 23rd in the latest RPI rankings and have the same record as Rutgers in Big Ten play.
In regards to Thursday’s much anticipated meeting with Penn State, the two programs have taken part in some classic battles the past few seasons since Mike O’Neill became head coach and Rutgers joined the Big Ten in 2014. Penn State has lost just five times to conference opponents since the start of the 2014 season, but three of their defeats have come at the feet of Rutgers.
In the past three regular season meetings, Rutgers owns a 2-0-1 record against Penn State. They beat the Nittany Lions on the road 1-0 in 2014 and then again in 2015 at home by the same score with the winning goal coming from now senior captain, Colby Ciarrocca. Penn State was ranked in the top ten for both meetings. Later on during the 2015 season, Penn State did get revenge, beating Rutgers 1-0 in the Big Ten Championship game and then again in the NCAA Tournament Semifinal, both by the score of 2-0. Last year, the teams played in a highly entertaining 2-2 draw at Happy Valley during the regular season, before Rutgers visited again for the Big Ten Quarterfinal match and stunned Penn State with a 2-0 victory.
As far as the Ohio State matchup this Sunday, the Buckeyes handed the Nittany Lions their only conference loss this season. The only blemish in Big Ten play so far for Ohio State was a 1-0 loss to Northwestern (6-6-2; 3-3-1), the preseason pick for second place in the conference and a team Rutgers tied with earlier this season.
For the Scarlet Knights, there is no better place to face such stiff competition than in the confines of Yurcak Field, where the program has flourished during O’Neill’s tenure as coach. Since 2014, Rutgers holds an impressive 38-3-4 record at home and haven’t lost more than once at Yurcak Field in any of those seasons. They did suffer a 1-0 defeat to Minnesota (9-2-3; 5-1-1) on September 29th in what was a rematch of last season’s Big Ten Championship, which the Golden Gophers won as well. However, Rutgers bounced back with a 1-0 win in overtime over then #12 ranked Wisconsin two days later. Hopefully, they have their lone setback at home this season behind them and are primed to continue their dominance at Yurcak Field this weekend.
I’ve spoke with several players this season about what is different for this program when playing at home and here were some of their answers:
Colby Ciarrocca: “We take a lot of pride in playing at home at Yurcak. We take a lot of pride in representing our university and the state of New Jersey. Jersey Strong.”
Casey Murphy: “We love playing in front of our friends and family. Especially being a Jersey girl, it’s great to know that I have a big fan base that comes and supports me at the games and I know the other Jersey girls feel the same way. To be able to look up and see our friends and family in the stands is awesome.”
Amanda Visco: “Fans and families definitely help when we are home. But we have a motto that our goal is to not lose at home.”
Amirah Ali: “It starts with our coaches. He (O’Neill) has a phrase that he likes to keep his players home. I think it’s different when you’re home, where you live. You just play harder for your hometown and school and work hard for it. You’re playing for your state and for your college. You play harder for something you love and where you live.”
As for how head coach Mike O’Neill views their success at home, it’s an integral part of the culture he has built at Rutgers and it has helped him accomplish something many of the school’s other programs have failed to do....keep the best high school players in New Jersey home for college. O’Neill said this:
“I know they take a lot of pride in playing in front of their families, a lot of pride in playing in front of their friends and the Rutgers community. There are a lot of youth kids that come to the games. They take a lot of pride in playing at Yurcak and winning. Part of their goal is they recognize they can be successful at home and that it gives them a great chance in having a successful season. It also helps in recruiting 100%. There is something to be said about playing in front of your family. We take a lot of pride in keeping the best players from Jersey home. We have a great gameday experience. We want to create a culture where all of the best players want to stay home and go to Rutgers. That’s what we are looking for.”
In talking with O’Neill and several players at the start of the season and ahead of Big Ten play, it was clear that winning championships is the goal for this program. While they face an uphill battle to the top of the conference standings with being 7 points behind with just four games to play, the Scarlet Knights can make up a lot of ground and make a major statement with wins this weekend against Penn State and Ohio State. They have had more success against the Nittany Lions than any other program in the conference and the visitors enter Thursday’s game just 2-3-1 on the road so far this season. Rutgers has never lost to the Buckeyes, having won the first five meetings between the schools before a scoreless draw last season in Columbus, Ohio.
While Rutgers is just 1-2-1 in their past four games after a 8-0-2 start to the 2017 campaign, coming home to face their stiffest competition of the season may just be what they need to get back on track. With 21 of 28 players on the roster being freshmen or sophomores, it’s natural that they have hit a wall in early October. However, this program has done very well down the stretch and in postseason play under O’Neill the past three seasons. They have made it to the Big Ten Championship game all three years and own a 6-3 record in NCAA Tournament action, making at least the second round each season, including the 2015 Final Four. With top scorer and senior captain Colby Ciarrocca (6 goals, 15 points) leading the attack up front, as well as MAC Hermann Trophy Candidate and the best goalkeeper in the country in Casey Murphy minding the net, Rutgers could be primed for a deep postseason run. Knowing how much this season means to those two players and the entire roster, expect this team to give their best effort this weekend and no matter the result, it will be great preparation for the soon approaching postseason.
- Thursday’s match against Penn State will be shown live on BTN at 7 p.m.
- Sunday’s match against Ohio State is senior day for the graduating players and Colby Ciarrocca, Casey Murphy, Christy Monroy, Courtney Norton, and Brianna Scarola will be honored in a pregame ceremony. The game will be shown on BTN plus here.