The #13th ranked Rutgers women’s soccer team completed non-conference play with a 6-0-1 record and have yet to allow an opponent to score a goal this season. While expectations were high entering the start of the 2017 campaign, three fourths of the roster is made up of freshmen and sophomores. The most heralded newcomer to arrive to the program was the reigning National High School Player of the Year, forward Amirah Ali, from Voorhees, New Jersey. The former three-time high school All-American has had a great start to her Rutgers career, as she is tied with senior Colby Ciarrocca with a team high four goals and is second with nine points overall. Ali spoke about how the youth of this team has embraced the challenges of playing at this level and of the expectations for Rutgers.
“We knew coming in we had a young team, but we didn’t let that discourage us. A lot of other teams and in articles talked about how we had such a young team. We like to think when you go on the field, you don’t play your age, you are just a soccer player and go out there and do your thing. We don’t look at age as a setback. No matter what age you are, we should play together, be one and do our jobs.”
Head coach Mike O’Neill is not surprised at all in how well the youth and experience of this team has blended together so early on this season.
“I expected things to gel because of the leadership with the captains in Casey (Murphy), Colby (Ciarrocca), Kristy (Monroy), and Kenie (Wright). We have Bri Scarola and Courtney Norton who are seniors. Adora (Moneme) is a junior. The captains and the upperclassmen have really embraced leading by example. They’ve done a very good job of leading the 21 freshmen and sophomores because they recognize how important it is. We talk about it all the time, you get up during the day and try to think about how to become a better leader. When you go to bed at night, your thinking about waking up and doing it again because of the number of freshmen and sophomores that we have. There is so much that is put on this leadership group to lead by example, to lead through hard work, character and always doing the right things. They do a really, really good job at that, but that’s what I expected because that is the culture that has been build here.”
One aspect in particular that Rutgers has excelled at during O’Neill’s tenure is on defense. In 2015, when the Scarlet Knights advanced to its first ever College Cup, the final four for women’s soccer, the team led the NCAA in goals-against average (0.37), shutouts (19), and shutout percentage (.731). All three marks were single season records for the program. Of course, the goalkeeper on that team was Casey Murphy, who has returned this season after spending last year with the US National Team at various levels. Murphy is the current United Soccer Coaches National Player of the Week, as well as the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week, after making a season high six saves against Georgetown. Starting center back Amanda Visco, an All-Big Ten Freshman from last season, spoke about how Murphy’s return has impacted the defense this year.
“Casey is a tremendous player and really helps us stay organized back there. She’s obviously come up huge several times to keep up our shutout record. She gives us so much confidence. We know if we make a mistake that she is there to back us up.”
Rutgers is one of just two teams in the country to have not allowed a goal yet this season. I asked Visco how much the team focuses on the current shutout streak.
“We definitely take a lot of pride in our shutouts. Every game we always talk about how we are going to do that and to be organized, the details to get our shutout. If the opponent can’t score, than they can’t win. It starts with us back there and we do our job, then the forwards do their jobs.”
Coach O’Neill spoke about the team’s philosophy on defense and the mindset that all the players must have, regardless of their position.
“We talk about it all the time that we defend as one. It starts with the forwards and works it’s way back. What we ask is that everyone understands their role and responsibilities on both sides of the ball, but in defending. Collectively, I think they’ve all done a great job. It’s so important to have Casey in the goal and what she brings experience wise. The center of the defense with Chantelle (Swaby) and Amanda (Visco), they’re relationship, this is year two of it. You throw that in with Kenie Wright, who is a junior, and Courtney Norton, who is a senior, they’ve been through it. They have a lot of experience.”
“I think the thing that is so important is the job that the midfielders are doing in front of them. From Taylor Aylmer, Adora Moneme, Gabby Provenzano, Kristy Monroy, they work so well as a unit and that allows a little more freedom for Nicole Whitley and Alexa Ferreira. We talk all the time that it takes eleven players to defend. Whether you are a starter or coming in as a game changer, our expectations and roles and responsibilities are clear.”
O’Neill also spoke about where he thinks this team is at with Big Ten play beginning this Sunday against Maryland, a team that also has an 6-0-1 record.
“I’m very pleased. As a coaching staff, we like where this team is right now. We are creating chances and scoring goals. We are doing a great job in playing both sides of the ball. All the players are getting involved in the attack and they’re all defending as well. The team dynamic is taking shape. There are still areas that we need to get better in. I think the idea there is they come in every day and embrace what we are talking about regarding areas of improvement and lets get better at it. They are coming in everyday with that mentality of how to improve. As a coaching staff, that’s all you can ask for.”
Last Sunday, Rutgers battled another ranked foe in Georgetown on the road to a scoreless draw. It was the first time all season the Scarlet Knights had been held without a goal, but the result was a step forward, after losing to the Hoyas twice last season, including in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. O’Neill spoke about why playing Georgetown right before Big Ten play was so important for the team in their development this season.
“I wanted Georgetown to be the last game going into conference play because it allows us to look at the team and see areas that we did well in and areas that we need to improve upon. Although Georgetown had a few more shots than we did, there wasn’t a lot of good scoring opportunities for both sides. I think defensively we did a very good job in limiting them with opportunities. There were some shots that were from 30 to 35 yards out. If you are going to shoot from that distance and try to beat Casey, it’s going to be pretty tough to do. It allows us to polish up a few things, be aware of those details and habits on both sides of the ball that are going to make us successful. We did a very good job of defending, now we looked at areas we need to improve on in the attack and that’s what we’ve worked on this week.”
It was the biggest challenge so far this season for Rutgers and I asked Ali about what it was like for her and the other freshmen in facing the stiffest competition of their college careers so far and how it helps to prepare them for conference play.
“We know in Big Ten play those teams are very powerful, very skilled, just good teams altogether. I think playing Georgetown gave us a hint of that and we are going to be ready for our next game coming up.”
With so much talent on the roster, I asked coach O’Neill about the challenges of managing playing time and getting the younger players experience in non-conference play to help prepare them for the Big Ten schedule.
“It’s one of the biggest challenges in being a head coach because we have 28 players on the team and all of them can play. But you can’t play 28 at one time, you are trying to make sure they understand the value of depth and how important that is. The season itself is a grind, especially the Big Ten. It’s so important for us that we keep everyone focused. We talk about those type of things because what we need to be successful is depth. Giving everyone that experience to get on the field and recognize what we’ve done in training and add it to a game is very important. Going into Big Ten play, we have our home games, but travel is tough some times. That depth is important for our success.”
Now that conference play has arrived, I asked coach about if he has any concerns with the team staying focused and not getting caught up in their success so far.
“Every day, we focus on getting better each day. We always talk about the next game being the most important. We talk about being humble and hungry, because if you are that way, there will always be that drive to improve. The players set goals for out of conference play and they’ve accomplished them. Now the second season starts, so they recognize that getting into Big Ten play, this is what is going to determine the postseason for them. I think they’ve done a great job of not getting caught up in anything other than the day to day environment of getting better. Those are the things we talk about all the time. I think the captains have done a really, really good job of keeping everyone grounded.”
Before the season, I spoke with O’Neill, Murphy and Ciarrocca and all of them made it clear that winning championships this season was the ultimate goal. No Rutgers team in any sport has won a Big Ten title yet and this squad has the potential to make run at the national championship as well this season. I asked Ali how focused she and the team are in accomplishing those goals.
“Coming in as a freshmen class, we talked about knowing the team had lost a lot of key players from last season with Erin Smith and Madison Tiernan. We realized we had to step in and fill those spots. We know when we step on that field, we have to work hard and do our job for the time that we are in the game. A national championship is definitely our number one goal. We are working hard together and trying to get to our goal of winning a Big Ten championship for Rutgers. To put up a banner at our school to represent us.”
The quest for the first Big Ten title in program history, as well as for any Rutgers team ever, begins Sunday at 3:30 p.m. at Yurcak Field against Maryland. If you subscribe to BTN Plus, you can watch the game here.