The Rutgers women’s soccer team has proven to be one of the most consistent and successful programs in any sport on the banks in recent years. Five consecutive NCAA appearances, three straight seasons ranked in the final Top 25 poll nationally, and making back to back Big Ten Championship games clearly demonstrate that fact. Under head coach Mike O’Neill, who is entering his fourth season leading the program after a decade plus as an assistant with Rutgers, the team’s ability to prepare and develop players has been the backbone of their success.
Heading into the 2017 campaign with big expectations, O’Neill told me about the mantra that’s been adopted by the players throughout the offseason and preseason, which they call “the edge”.
“What the edge means is doing the extra work in making sure that you are prepared, that you are fit, that you understand that you are a part of something bigger than you and that you go out and get it done. Coming in everyday and working to get better. That’s the best thing you can do for your teammates. That commitment shows your teammates how much you care. They’ve been fantastic in creating this environment centered around the team dynamic and doing a little bit more than you are supposed to.”
“In the preseason, you really don’t have a lot of time and building a team is the hardest part. They embraced in what they did over the summer and talked about how they (the players) created “the edge” for themselves. It has been really inspiring to listen about how they’ve prepared, because all they have talked about is what they have done for the team. When they talk about all of the extras that they did and how they prepared themselves for the success of the team, it brings us one step closer to building that team.”
The Rutgers roster is supremely talented, having a dynamic blend of youth and experience. With only four seniors and over half of the roster being freshmen and sophomores, leadership is key in developing that talent and having it come together, in order to lead to success. O’Neill added:
“We are young, we have twenty-one freshmen and sophomores combined, but with that youth, we have a really good blend of juniors and seniors of strong character and ability. It’s important to have those captains in Casey (Murphy), Colby (Ciarrocca), Kenie (Wright), and Christy (Monroy), because they lead by example.”
Of course, star goalkeeper Casey Murphy brings with her more than just talent and leadership. After missing last season to captain the under-20 US National Women’s Team in the World Cup, where they finished in fourth place, Murphy brings a lot of experience back with her as well. O’Neill praised her worth ethic and the positive impact it has on the rest of the team:
“She is always putting the extra work in. When things get a little hectic, she calms people down. She uses that experience and you can see it spread to other players. Casey plays one of the most important positions on the field and for her to come back and provide that for the players in front of her, it just makes them more confident. The thing that she does so well, she is such a fierce competitor, but she enjoys the process. She understands what putting in the hard work means and it’s contagious.”
Murphy also brings plenty of accolades with her on the pitch as well. She was recently named the top goalkeeper in the country by Top Drawer Soccer and was included on the MAC Hermann Watch List, which is given annually to the top player in the college game. In 2015, Murphy produced a program record 19 shutouts in net and 0.37 goals against average, helping to lead Rutgers to its first ever College Cup (Final Four) appearance. She has embraced her return to Rutgers after a year away, which included training with the senior US National Team last winter. Murphy had this to say about the experience:
“Being able to play with the under-20 National Team last fall was an incredible experience. To play for your country and on the biggest stage is an honor, but also helped me grow tremendously as a player.“
“It’s been great to be back. I feel like I’ve been here the whole time. We didn’t skip a beat while I was gone. Happy to be back in this competitive environment with, in my opinion, the best coaches in the country and some of the most talented players in the country as well.”
Teammate and fellow captain, senior Colby Ciarrocca, who is the team’s returning leading scorer and was second on the squad last season with 17 points, talked about how having Murphy back in the net helps the rest of the team be more aggressive on the field.
“Casey asserts a confidence in our backline and helps our backfield push the midfielders forward, who then look for the frontline. It definitely helps with our attacking mindset and Casey is great with her feet and we know she can play a long ball from the back, up top.”
Murphy, Ciarrocca, and reigning Big Ten Freshmen of the Year, midfielder Nicole Whitley, were named to the conference’s preseason honors list earlier this week. The Big Ten is one of the toughest conferences in women’s soccer and Rutgers was picked to finish third in the preseason coaches poll. In the preseason national polls, Rutgers is ranked #21st in the country.
Aside from a challenging conference slate that includes playing fellow ranked foes #19 Minnesota and #23 Northwestern, as well as rival and perennial Big Ten Champ, Penn State, Rutgers has a very challenging non-conference schedule. They’ll play #14 UConn in late August at home and travel to #5 Georgetown in mid-September. The Hoyas beat Rutgers twice last season, including the second round of the NCAA Tournament, ultimately making the College Cup one year after the Scarlet Knights accomplished the same.
Overall, the 2017 schedule features ten opponents who qualified for the NCAA’s last season. However, with Murphy back in the net, along with several returning starters, expectations remain high. In addition, Rutgers welcomes a highly touted recruiting class, which we covered in detail here. The group of incoming freshmen include National High School Player of the year, Amirah Ali. O’Neill talked about the process of integrating the newcomers into the program:
“When you bring a freshmen class in, the expectations are that they are going to come in and have an impact. It also provides for us depth and competition. One of the greatest forms of development is competition. That competition everyday is getting stronger and stronger and that’s where you build your depth. What we are asking of people is to be accountable. We talk about being 28 strong. What that means is that the season is a grind. That’s what we talk about with the edge, about being ready for your team. With that depth, you need it in order to be successful.”
Ciarrocca spoke about the progress made during the preseason, ahead of Friday’s opener at home against Loyola Marymount:
“I think we have a lot of talent with the incoming freshmen and with the sophomores, as they now have another year of experience under their belts. I think we have improved a lot moving forward and have learned a lot this preseason, so we are ready to show it on the field.”
O’Neill preached the importance of his players appreciating the opportunity they have this season and what it means to go to school and play at Rutgers.
“We are all so excited because part of this whole thing, we talk about “Forever Rutgers”. That’s a big thing that we use all the time. “Forever Rutgers”, what does that mean? “Forever Rutgers” means that it’s in your heart. You come out every day and you work hard for your teammates and work hard to get better. You enjoy the process. We compete for championships. What we are asking for is that everyday they are here, every team has a one year life, because changes happen. That every day they gain a little more of “Forever Rutgers” in their heart and when they leave here, it’s one of the greatest experiences of their lives. It has to be more than just about soccer.”
Earlier this summer, I considered which Rutgers program was closest to the schools first championship, whether it be the Big Ten or the NCAA title. I came to the conclusion that the women’s soccer team, for many reasons, has the best chance to bring home a title to the banks during the 2017-2018 school year. However, no one is putting more expectations on this team than the players themselves. When I asked Ciarrocca what would define a successful season in her mind, she said:
“We set our goals to win a Big Ten Championship, make a final four appearance, and to win a national championship.”
I asked Murphy the same question and her answer was almost identical:
“A successful season for the program looks like a Big Ten Championship, a run to the college cup (Final Four). We set goals early on in preseason and we’ve been working to make them happen. It starts Friday night.”
There you have it. Don’t worry about having high hopes for the Rutgers women’s soccer team this season. They wouldn’t want it any other way. The season kicks off Friday night at 7 p.m. at Yurcak Field. Let the quest for a championship begin!