If you aren’t a Rutgers alum or fan, you are probably laughing at the title of this article. So be it. Yes, Rutgers has struggled mightily on the field, court, and diamond since becoming a member of the Big Ten in 2014. Football and basketball, including both the men’s and women’s programs, all produced last place finishes in conference play this past year alone. The image of losing within the entire athletic department is projected across the national landscape because of the struggles of those high profile programs. While I believe better days are ahead for those programs and others, it’s going to take time. However, for those of us who are informed and do care about Rutgers, we know that there are three programs that have emerged at the top of the class within the athletic department right now. These are programs that are successful not only in conference play, but on a national level as well.
Rutgers was the only Big Ten school to not win a conference title this past school year and no team had yet to break through in three years as a member. It will happen eventually, perhaps as soon as next year. Right now, Rutgers has three legitimately successful programs. The women’s soccer team, wrestling, and men’s lacrosse teams have been nationally ranked on an annual basis and have been the most competitive and successful teams in Big Ten play for Rutgers the past three seasons by a wide margin. Let’s review the current state of each program to assess which one is best positioned to win a championship for Rutgers, whether it be in the Big Ten or a national title.
Head coach Mike O’Neill was a long time assistant coach for the program, before taking it to even greater heights as the head coach the past three years. Rutgers advanced to the Big Ten Tournament Championship game the past two seasons in a row. Despite losing the title match both times, no Rutgers program has made the final of a Big Ten Tournament in any other sport other than men’s lacrosse, which did so in 2016.
In three seasons under O’Neill, the program has amassed a 44-15-10 record overall and a 19-8-8 record in Big Ten play. They’ve advanced to at least the second round of the NCAA Tournament all three years and earned the program’s first ever College Cup (Final Four) in 2015. They are 6-3 under O’Neill in NCAA Tournament play.
As for the future, it sure looks bright. O’Neill just signed a stellar recruiting class that includes National High School Player of the Year Amirah Ali. Goalkeeper Casey Murphy has returned after a year hiatus away from the program to play and train with the U-23 Women’s US National Team. She was recently named the top goalkeeper in the country by Top Drawer Soccer. When Murphy was in goal for the historic 2015 season, Rutgers led the NCAA in goals-against average (0.37), shutouts (19), and shutout percentage (.731), all program bests.
Rutgers did graduate last season’s leading scorer Madison Tiernan, as well as Erica Murphy, who was third in goals. However the offense returns three of the top producers in rising junior Colby Ciarrocca (6 goals, 5 assists), who was second on the team in total points with 17, as well as rising sophomores Nicole Whitley and Taylor Aylmer. On defense, stalwart Erin Smith graduated, but a lot of experience returns, including a lot who played as freshman last season.
Head coach Scott Goodale has built Rutgers into a nationally ranked program on an annual basis. Instead of falling back since entering the premier wrestling conference three years ago, the program has only gotten better instead. They finished ranked in the top 12 nationally the past two seasons and for the first time in program history, Rutgers had two All-Americans in the same year in back to back seasons. One of the greatest high school wrestlers in New Jersey history, Anthony Ashnault, has won consecutive Big Ten titles on top of his consecutive All-American finishes. He has a legitimate chance to win an individual national title at 141 pounds next season, which will be his last in the collegiate ranks.
The program has had a minimum of seven wrestlers qualify for the NCAA Tournament the past two years and has a strong core returning next season. In addition to returning starters Scott DelVecchio, Nick Gravina, John Van Brill, Jordan Pagano, and Ashnault, former starter Richie Lewis returns after redshirting this past season. This group doesn’t even include members of the 2016 recruiting class, which was ranked in the top ten nationally, as well as this year’s class that includes the national high school wrestler of the year, Stephen Glasgow, who our Bob Cancro spoke with earlier this spring.
In terms of quality and depth from top to bottom on the roster, there is no stronger program personnel wise at Rutgers than the wrestling team right now. The issue in terms of winning a Big Ten championship is that the conference is absolutely loaded. Ohio State, Penn State and Iowa are perennial top 5 programs in the country. Even so, Goodale has built a program from the ground up and seemed poised to only get better results, both as a team and in individual weight classes, moving forward.
Like the women’s soccer team and the wrestling program, the men’s lacrosse team has only elevated their play since joining the Big Ten. After finishing 11-5 in 2016, they followed it up with a 10-4 campaign in 2017, despite missing four starters due to injury. While the program was disappointed to narrowly miss the NCAA Tournament both seasons, they are on the cusp of really breaking through. In the final month of this past season, Rutgers lost to eventual national champion Maryland in triple overtime on Easter Sunday and defeated eventual national finalist Ohio State in overtime in the regular season finale. They also defeated four ranked opponents in the same season for the first time in over a decade.
They proved they can compete with any team in the nation, but also cannot afford RPI killing losses like the one to Delaware in mid-season. The roster for next season looks to be the most talent laden group the program has had in years. Former Big Ten Freshman of the Year Adam Charalambides returns a year removed from leading the conference in goals. He will be joined by Kieran Mullins, who led Rutgers this season with 35 goals as a freshman and was named Second Team All-Big Ten. Captains Jules Heningburg and Michael Rexrode will be back for their senior campaigns. Rexrode is the anchor of the defense and was named Third Team All-American by two publications, while Heningburg was named an Honorable Mention All-American. Goaltender Max Edelman was named Second Team All-Big Ten and returns for his senior season as well. All of the program’s postseason accolades can be read in more detail here and here.
After back to back 10 plus win seasons and a pair of top 20 national rankings, the men’s lacrosse is primed for major success next season. While recruiting must improve for the program to compete against the country’s elite long term, head coach Brian Brecht has done a tremendous job in building a roster ready to win big in 2018.
Which Program Is Best Positioned To Be A Champion First?
It’s a difficult question, for sure. Like I mentioned, I think wrestling has the most talented roster, but their competition is the steepest. The Big Ten is brutal in lacrosse as well, with the conference sending two schools to the NCAA title game. As for women’s soccer, the conference is also highly competitive and saw Penn State win the national title in 2015. However, I think Casey Murphy back in goal for Rutgers elevates their program to another level. She is poised to one day become the starting goalkeeper for the US National team and Rutgers had the best defense in the country two seasons ago with her in the net. With a strong core returning and an infusion of talent being added to the roster with an elite recruiting class, I think the women’s soccer team has the best opportunity to win a championship, whether it be a Big Ten title or national title, next season. The reality is the conference is so competitive in all three sports, it might be more likely for one of these teams to catch fire in NCAA Tournament play versus sustaining success in the regular season gauntlet that is the conference schedule.
The great news is that all three programs are well positioned to be improved next year and beyond. The future is very bright for all three teams and that should be something that makes all Rutgers supporters proud and excited for.
What do you think? Vote in our poll and sound off in the comments. Thanks for reading.
Which Rutgers Program Is Closest To Winning A Championship?
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