After finishing in second place in the regular season of Big Ten play, the postseason begins this weekend for the Rutgers women’s soccer team. While the Scarlet Knights fell one win short of the school’s first ever Big Ten title, it was the best finish for the program since joining the conference in 2014. In fact, only the men’s lacrosse team in 2016 has equaled such a high finish in the regular season of the Big Ten standings for any Rutgers athletic program.
Under head coach Mike O’Neill, the Rutgers women’s soccer team (11-2-5; 7-1-3) has become used to success in the postseason. This year’s team gets their first opportunity on Sunday at 1 p.m., as they host Minnesota (9-8-1; 5-5-1) at Yurcak Field in the quarterfinal round of the Big Ten Tournament. The match will be shown on BTN Plus. You can find the link here, but you do need a subscription to watch.
The two programs have met twice previously in Big Ten Tournament play, splitting the two meetings, which includes Rutgers losing the 2016 Championship game to Minnesota 2-1 in St. Paul. The Scarlet Knights have appeared in three of the last five Big Ten title games.
This season, the Scarlet Knights defeated the Golden Gophers on the road 2-1 in overtime on September 30th. Adora Moneme scored the game winner and goalkeeper Meagan McClelland had a career high five saves in the victory.
Speaking of the true freshman, McClelland’s development this fall has been a major reason for the team’s success. She had the unenviable task of replacing Casey Murphy in the net for Rutgers, a two-time Big Ten goalkeeper of the year, an All-American, and one of the best players in program history.
McClelland was tabbed the starter from day one by O’Neill and after allowing just two goals in the first five games, the competition ramped up at the end of non-conference play and beginning of the Big Ten schedule. As a team, Rutgers still went 2-1-2 during the next five games, but allowed an uncharacteristic seven goals in that span. However, McClelland has been fantastic since then, allowing just three goals in the past eight games during a stretch that Rutgers went 5-1-2, which included six contests that went into overtime. The veteran defense playing in front of her, led by captain Kenie Wright and Madison Pogarch, among others, has been key in helping McClelland’s confidence level throughout the season. She has earned several honors during October, being named the Big Ten Freshman of the Week and the Big Ten Goalkeeper of the Week twice each.
Head coach Mike O’Neill credits both McClelland and the leadership of the veteran players in the turnaround. In speaking on McClelland, he said, “The transition from club and high school to college is not an easy one. It’s not just the soccer, it’s the academics, time management, as well as coming in to fill the shoes of the one of the best goalkeepers to ever play collegiate soccer.” He continued, “It’s a combination of all of that and also a development of relationships with the players that are playing with around you. That takes some time. We always knew how talented Meagan was, there was never a doubt in that.”
O’Neill credits McClelland, saying “she just needed to find her way and the best way to find your way is to play. She rolled up her sleeves and figured it out. That confidence we had in her as a coaching staff never changed. The leaders on our team told her they believe in her as well. It’s an important position for us to have success. She has made big saves for us and needs to continue to do so in order for us to have a good season.”
As for what makes this team successful, O’Neill said the formula is a product of the players. He said, “You need to have leadership, team chemistry, and talent. That’s the character of our group. The captains, Kenie Wright and Taylor Aylmer, have been outstanding. There is still another level that we can get to. There is still a lot of soccer to be played. I think the attention to the small details that this team has had has been very impressive to watch.”
After a regular season that included matching an NCAA record of 11 overtime matches, going an incredible 6-0-5 during those contests, I asked O’Neill how he has preserved through so many tension filled games. He replied, “I keep going to CVS to get some hair color dye.” After a good laugh from both us, he continued, “We’ve talked about how much we enjoy playing with each other, but let’s still try and get the win in 90 minutes.”
With the postseason now here, Rutgers will have a full week in between their last regular season game, a win over Purdue, until Sunday’s match against Minnesota. I had recently asked O’Neill about how he has handled the team after playing so many overtime games. “We have to consider all the extra time that we have played. It’s very important that we are looking after them”, said O’Neill. He added “there have been some heavy legs due to fatigue. We have a strength and conditioning program that helps along with our trainer. We make sure we have a plan to get them off their feet, looking after themselves, that they are eating right, resting and doing the things they need to do, so when they do step back on the field, they have their legs back and we can continue to get better as a team. I have so much faith in my staff and the plan we have put together, so when the games kickoff, we feel good about we are doing.”
In regard to the NCAA Tournament, Rutgers, ranked #21 in the latest coaches poll, is in good shape to earn their seventh consecutive bid. They are ranked 28th in this week’s RPI rankings, which is the highest of any Big Ten team. Of course, a win on Sunday against Minnesota would go a long way in ensuring the next step in this postseason once the Big Ten Tournament is complete is a reality.
As the women’s soccer team embarks on its quest for a Big Ten Tournament title, something no Rutgers athletic program has done in any sport, O’Neill’s approach remains the same as always. “We take things one game at a time and just focus on our team getting better. It’s all about us, we aren’t worried about anything else.”
For more from coach O’Neill, listen to our recent podcast conversation between him and our host Lance Glinn here.
You can find the full Big Ten Tournament bracket below. If Rutgers advances past their quarterfinals match this weekend, the semifinal and championship rounds will be played November 2nd through 4th at a neutral site in Westfield, Indiana.