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Rutgers Women's Soccer: NCAA 2nd Round Preview vs. West Virginia

Includes thoughts from head coach Mike O’Neill, as well as forwards Colby Ciarocca & Brittany LaPlant

How To Watch & Listen

#22 Rutgers (13-2-5) At #7 West Virginia (16-3-2)

What: NCAA Second Round Match

When: Friday, November 17th at 7:00 p.m. ET

Where: Morgantown, West Virginia

Stream: Mountaineer TV

Head To Head: West Virginia leads the all-time series 11-4-2 & the two programs were former Big East foes.

About West Virginia

The Mountaineers finished in second place in the Big 12 this season and lost via penalty kicks in the semifinals of its conference tournament to TCU. They are ranked 7th in the latest United Soccer Coaches Poll and 7th in the latest RPI rankings. West Virginia is playing in the NCAA Tournament for the 18th consecutive year, are the #2 seed in the region and beat Bucknell 3-0 last weekend in the first round.

The Mountaineers are second in the nation in shots per game with 21.19 and fourth in corner kicks per contest with 7.62. They had seven players who were named to either the first or second All-Big 12 teams, including goalkeeper Amanda Pierre-Louis, who was named Big 12 Co-Defensive Player of the Year. She has produced 11 shutouts this season and led the Big 12 with a 0.43 goals allowed average. Senior forward Michaela Abam is the team’s leading scorer with 10 goals and she scored twice in the win over Bucknell. The Mountaineers do have a potent attack, averaging 1.86 goals per game and have six players who have scored 3 or more goals this season.

Keys For Rutgers

Maintain Focus From First Round

Rutgers responded well after two weeks off with a 3-1 victory over LaSalle in the first round of the NCAA Tournament last weekend. I asked head coach Mike O’Neill how the team used the time off to prepare for the NCAA’s and he was clear in his response:

“After dealing with the disappointment of not advancing, we spoke with the team that it was time to get some rest and get healthy. And that’s what we did. We took the time period that we had between the Quarterfinal and the NCAA draw, we just spent time getting better. We had to get over the disappointment pretty quickly to become better soccer players. That’s what we did during that two week break. We focused on ourselves and knew on both sides of the ball we needed to get better and we did that.”

“Obviously to be successful, we have to be good on both sides of the ball. A lot of our focus was on the attacking side and keeping the ball, as well as creating and finishing opportunities. We did a lot of that in training. We also took a couple of players that had played a lot of minutes up there and were a little bit banged up and getting them some rest. So it was a combination of the two. It was one of the things we felt were important for us to be successful in the NCAA Tournament. We do a good job on the defensive side of the ball, but we need to be better at creating and finishing our chances. I thought we did a very good job with the ball against LaSalle.”

Sophomore forward Brittany LaPlant, who has five goals this season, including one in the win over LaSalle, agreed with her coach’s assessment:

“Obviously we would have liked to have made it farther in the Big Ten Tournament. At the same time, it gave us a lot of time to take a step back and figure out what we needed to work on moving forward for the NCAA Tournament. I think we did a really good job preparing and I’m really excited for what’s to come.”

The Scarlet Knights certainly benefited from the time off, but need to maintain that focus heading into a difficult road game on Friday against #2 seed West Virginia.

Extend Offensive Resurgence

While Rutgers scored multiple goals in its first six games of the season, they only produced multiple goals in three Big Ten matches and hadn’t scored more than twice in a contest since August. Scoring three times against LaSalle was a big development for this team and is an encouraging sign that the two weeks off really paid off. Senior forward Colby Ciarrocca, who assisted on two of the goals in the first round win, is tied with Big Ten Freshman of the Year, Amirah Ali, with the team lead for goals and points, felt the effort against LaSalle was a major boost for morale.

“I think scoring three goals in the first round was big for us”, Ciarrocca said. “It gave a lot of confidence and a bunch of different people contributed to those scoring opportunities. We are just taking that confidence and moving forward into this weekend.”

LaPlant agreed and pointed out the reality of what this team must do in order to make a deep run in this NCAA Tournament:

“Our team is very defense oriented. We’ve only given up six goals all season, which is amazing. We are really proud of that. We haven’t really had a lot of multiple goal games. Coming out in the first round and scoring three goals against LaSalle is going to really give us some momentum going forward because if we want to have success in the NCAA Tournament, we have to be able to score goals.”

Ciarrocca and LaPlant, along with Ali, have combined for 17 of the 33 goals that Rutgers has scored this season. For the Scarlet Knights to produce goals on Friday, one or more of the three players will almost assuredly being involved. Their mindset heading into this match is so important and they seem ready to go.

Maintain Possession

West Virginia is second in the country in averaging over 21 shots per game and are relentless in attacking its opposition. While Rutgers has arguably the best netminder in the country with Big Ten Goalkeeper of the Year, Casey Murphy, coach O’Neill spoke about the key in slowing down the Mountaineers offense on Friday night:

“It’s making sure everyone understands their roles and responsibilities on both sides of the ball. They are a good attacking team. We have to make sure defensively that we are well organized. The attention to the details and what we believe are the details that will make us successful. But the greatest form of defending is keeping the ball. We need to raise the level on the attacking side. Making sure when we win the ball, we don’t give it right back, because if we do that, we will be defending for awhile.”

“We need to be clear on the gameplan in regards to the attack and when we have it, we need to keep it. When we keep it, we need to make sure that we create chances. With the mentality of creating, we have to finish the chances that we get. When you play against a team like West Virginia that is going to be well organized, our commitment to the details is big. We need to defend as one and we need to keep the ball, very big.”

Rutgers has been in this position before. Several times in Big Ten play this season, Rutgers has been outshot by its opponent, but has still been able to deliver a result. I asked O’Neill how much the team’s experience in conference play can help prepare for such a high powered team like West Virginia and this was his response:

“We are very fortunate that we play in the one of the top conferences in the country. When you go through the schedule that we do in the Big Ten, you are definitely battle ready. Every game in the Big Ten is a war. All the games are close. It prepares you for the postseason. The opportunity to play the schedule that we do, we feel that going into this game that the experience is going to give us the best opportunity to be successful on Friday night.”

Health Status Of Kenie Wright

While the team was able to rest and get healthy during its two week break before the start of the NCAA Tournament, one key player has been injured and unable to play recently. Junior back and captain, Kenie Wright, missed the first round game against LaSalle and her status for Friday’s game is not yet decided:

“Kenie Wright is going to be a game time decision,” said coach O’Neill. “She is coming into training and doing a little bit. We are monitoring that everyday to see where she is at on Friday. The value and importance that Kenie Wright plays in our program is massive. She is a spark plug and really makes our team go. but she’ll be a game time decision, based on her health and being 100%. If she can’t go, we feel pretty confident in the players that we have here that someone will step up and do the job that Kenie does everyday. They are pretty big shoes to fill. What speaks volumes is the depth of the group, because Tiernny Wiltshire has stepped in and done a great job. She is a heck of a player.”

If Wright can’t go, Wiltshire is battle ready. The sophomore started four games this season, including playing the entire 90 minutes in last weekend’s win over LaSalle.

I also asked O’Neill the health status of the rest of the team and he answered “everybody else is ready to go.”

Playing For The Seniors

Rutgers has a unique makeup of its roster, as 21 of the 28 players are either freshmen or sophomores. They have had a lot of success this season with such a young team. However, the seniors on this team are not only talented, but have brought a lot of leadership everyday within the program. O’Neill talked about how important the upperclassmen have been:

“The experience is big and we are relying on it with our seven juniors and seniors. We have some sophomores that were very fortunate that experienced the postseason last year. It was important to get that first game (win over LaSalle) because for the group in general, the more games you experience in the NCAA postseason, that mentality of having to win to move on. You can talk about as much as you like, but the more games you play in it, that’s how you gain that experience. We’ve relied on our seven juniors and seniors for that experience to pull the group along. Our sophomores have done a good job with that as well. So we are looking forward to it. It’s going to be a tough match on Friday night and we are up for the challenge.”

In asking O’Neill about how this team compares to previous seasons, as he has now led Rutgers to the second round of the NCAA Tournament all four years he has been head coach, he harped on the culture that’s been built with this senior class:

“The culture is that we want to get better every day and work hard. I think the way this team has embraced that challenge every day speaks volumes to the teams that have come before them and the culture that they’ve created and the culture that happens here every day. There are similarities in everything that we do, but every team has one year life. What that means is that we say goodbye to some very good student-athletes at the end of the year. I think that the way this team has embraced playing for the seniors and playing for the university speaks volumes to the character and commitment of this team.”

Senior captain, Colby Ciarrocca, talked about the mental approach for all of the players on the roster, regardless of class:

“We talk about within our team that soccer doesn’t have an age and when you are on the field, we all have to play like upperclassmen. I really think that the underclassmen have gotten a lot of experience throughout this year and they’re ready for anything.”

With that being said, sophomore Brittany LaPlant did say that as a team, the younger players are well aware of this being the last hurrah for a very accomplished senior class:

“We definitely play a lot for the seniors because they deserve it and have worked really hard the past four years. Everything we do as a team is for them and to keep playing for as long as we possibly can.”

In covering this team and speaking with various players this season, its clear that team chemistry has been a strength for Rutgers. If they are to upset West Virginia and advance past the second round for the second time in three seasons, the unity of this team will be a major reaosn why.

Proving The Doubters Wrong

After the NCAA Tournament draw was announced, I questioned the committee’s decision to seed Rutgers 7th in its region when the Scarlet Knights are ranked 11th in the RPI.

Coach O’Neill was clear that it doesn’t matter where they are seeded and who they play, but that the important thing is to focus on themselves:

“We focus on what we can control. We can’t control that (seeding). What we can control is how much better we get every day and how we prepare for the next opponent. It’s a tough bracket. You have four really good teams and then you could potentially face the #1 team in the country (Stanford) in the final eight. At this stage of the game now, everybody can play. It’s one game at a time and our focus right now is on West Virginia. That is it.”

I asked LaPlant how the team is approaching this match:

“We know what to expect coming in. It’s going to be a hard game and it going to be a fight, but I think the team that will win is the team that wants it more.”

Ciarrocca talked about the importance of preparation and following the script laid out by the coaching staff:

“We know that the Rutgers way is through hard work, so we are just always grinding every day. Every practice is a new day. I think we are just focused on ourselves, our gameplan, and getting better in practice, so we can execute the gameplan that our coaches formed for us.”

For Rutgers to win at West Virginia, they will likely need to put together its best performance of the season. After falling short of a Big Ten title and conference tournament championship, there is plenty that they can still accomplish. Even with a loss, Rutgers has had a successful season. However, the players aren’t satisfied and are looking to continue its season as long as possible. Ciarrocca said it best, in terms of what this team is thinking heading into this second round match:

“We know it’s not where we started, but where we finish. Just having that mindset that we are going out there to prove people wrong. It’s us against everyone.”

To watch a live stream of tomorrow night’s second round match between Rutgers and West Virginia, click here.

Lastly, the RFund has started a campaign in honor of the Rutgers women’s soccer team during its latest NCAA Tournament run. Information on how to contribute is here and in the tweet below.