The Rutgers women’s soccer team opens its 2018 campaign on Friday night at Yurcak Field at 7 p.m. against Delaware. With many key players returning after a sixth consecutive season making the NCAA Tournament, as well as four straight of at least advancing to the second round, head coach Mike O’Neill has a strong collection of talent to work with once again.
In the preseason, Rutgers was voted to finish third in the Big Ten and open ranked 24th in the nation in the United Coaches Poll. Returning leading scorer Amirah Ali, who was named the Big Ten Freshman of the Year last season, as well as senior captain Kenie Wright and 2017 All-Big Ten Second Team selection Chantelle Swaby, were all named to the conference preseason honors list. In addition, Rutgers returns many experienced players that were an integral part of last season’s team, which went 13-2-6 overall, finishing in 4th place in the Big Ten with a 6-2-3 record, before falling in overtime in the second round of the NCAA’s to West Virginia in a shootout. O’Neill’s club is looking to build off of last season and continue to improve as a team.
“The four seniors we lost in Casey Murphy, Christy Monroy, Courtney Norton and Colby Ciarrocca all played a big part in the day to day environment for the program”, O’Neill stated. “People and players like that, you can’t replace them. What they brought makes them really special. For the players coming back, we have a good balance in all the different classes.”
O’Neill continued, “I really like our leadership with Kenie Wright and Taylor Aylmer (team captains). The returning players with the sophomore class last year that are now juniors and the freshman class that are now sophomores have really implemented the things that we work on as a program.” He continued, “For me as a coach, I like the experience coming back. They all understand what it means to be part of the program and what the expectations are for the day to day environment in the classroom and on the field. We have to get better every day. They’ve embraced that since the time they’ve been here and what they are doing a very good job of is helping the freshman adjust to that and be consistent within that. One of the biggest things we have spoken about is we need to be good at getting better every day. That is so important. Every day we need to go in the right direction of getting better.”
RU led the NCAA last season in goals-against average (0.267) and save percentage (.924). Anchoring the back line are starters Swaby and Wright, along with Amanda Visco. Additional veterans include Tiernny Wiltshire, Megan Katona and Dana Goldstein. The back line is also spurred by newcomer Madison Pogarch, a two-time All-MAC selection at Central Michigan.
“The back line is very important. You can’t replace a goalkeeper like Casey Murphy. But we aren’t trying to. We are trying to make sure that the goalkeepers that we have here that they are here to make their own impact, to make their own records”, said O’Neill. “I think that’s an important piece that our goalkeeper coach Lubos Ancin is going over with them because they aren’t here to be Casey, they are here to be themselves.”
O’Neill continued, “In looking at the talent we have at the position, we are going to be very good there. The experienced back line in front of them, its going to make them feel that much more comfortable and that much more confident in all that they do. The players in front of them are teachers. They are very good at discussing things as a group and our goalkeepers are part of that group. So having that experienced back line is very important.”
While it hasn’t been announced as to who will start in goal for the season opener on Friday, there is a solid mix of veterans and youth between fifth-year senior Brianna Scarola, sophomore Caitlyn Ferreira, and true freshman Meagan McClelland and Emma Huntzinger.
In regard to the addition of Pogarch, O’Neill commented, “She joined us in the spring and just made the adjustment so quickly. That’s a credit to Madison her character and type of person she is. She always leads by example in terms of being a good person, leading by example, doing the right thing, working hard, pushing her teammates.” He added, “It’s also a reflection of the team that they embraced her and that’s the environment and culture they have built to have someone come in for a short period of time and it feels like she has been here since day one of her college career.”
As for the midfield, all four starters return in Adora Moneme, Taylor Aylmer, Nicole Whitley, and Gabby Provenzano. For Rutgers to maintain their level on the defensive end, as well as improve on generating more scoring opportunities, the burden lies with the midfield.
“We always had success defensively and we want to make sure our defensive standard doesn’t slip at all,” said Aylmer. “We have focused more on the attacking side so that even though we aren’t giving up goals, we are producing them at the same time.”
Fellow midfielder Adora Monema agrees, saying “I feel like we are in a good spot. We’ve really focused on the mentality of attacking and being dangerous on the offensive end.” She continued, “Using our offense as defense and keeping that up. Scoring goals in the preseason, we’ve done a good job of having a scoring mentality and then having the technical and tactical capabilities along with it.”
For Rutgers to create more scoring opportunities, O’Neill said there is one key to doing that. “The best form of defending is keeping possession. You still have to defend at a high level because if it isn’t, than our attacking will never be at a high level. So far in preseason the team has done a great job with the defending aspect and all the details that go with it. For the past week, we focused on the attacking side because we recognize that to be a champion, we need to make sure we are scoring more goals. The players understand what we need to get done. To be successful, they understand we need to be good on both sides of the ball. It’s a focus of everyone in the program.”
As far as the development of the midfield ahead of this season, O’Neill was happy with the progress so far. “It’s been big for us and spent a lot of time on it in preseason. It’s an area of the field that we feel we want to be a possession-oriented team because it will create the most chances and give us the best opportunity to win a match.” He continued, “Our midfield recognized that last year we needed to be better at that. They have embraced the development of how we do things from the spring. Its been a focus of ours in the preseason. If I had to look back to this time last year between Nicole Whitley, Gabby Provenzona, Adora, and Taylor, along with a couple of the freshman that have come in and have had an impact, I think we are further along this year as far as the midfield and up top than we were at this point last year.”
In regard to the front line, Ali is flanked by Brittany LaPlant, who was the third leading scorer last season and had three game winners in 2017. With the loss of Colby Ciarrocca to graduation, who was tied with Ali for the scoring lead on the team, other players need to step up this season. Other key returning players up front include Carina Hendley and Nneka Moneme.
“Obviously one of our biggest focuses is team defending and not letting up goals. Not allowing goals is very important obviously to win games, but it’s also really important to be able to score goals, so we want to come out this season and score more goals than we have the past few years because that’s really what it’s going to take to win games,” said LaPlant. “We’ve been putting a little more emphasis on that. Our forward line has a lot of technical and tactical abilities, so they’ve been doing really well so far.”
As far as Amirah Ali, there is no denying she is a star in the making. “Amirah has embraced the challenge since the first time I met her. I know she is up for this. From where she was as a freshman until today, she is a better player. I think that’s a credit to the environment we have here but also to Amirah for having that drive. She understand that she is going to be a big part of our attack,” said O’Neill. “She also understands she still needs to be Amirah. What I mean by that is she is very competitive player, so we don’t want her thinking she has to carry the load.” He continued, “We also recognize that to be successful, we need her to be a big part of what we are doing. She embraces that.”
LaPlant agrees, saying “Amirah is a great player to work with. She sees the game really well and moves well off the ball, so it’s really fun to play with her. We create a lot of opportunities and lot of chances. I’m really excited to see what happens this season.”
As for any newcomers that could potentially become a scoring threat this season, LaPlant was quick to name one. “I’m really excited to see Emily Harrigan play. She plays forward as well and has been really impressive so far in training. She has been dangerous up top, works really hard, asks a lot of questions. I’m really excited to see what she does this year.”
It’s an aggressive start to the season for Rutgers, as they play four games in ten days. O’Neill confirmed that the scheduling was by design, saying “It is intentional because we need to figure out who we are and what we need to do to have a great year.”
As for what the expectations and goals are for this season, everyone I spoke to was on the same page. O’Neill has never shied away from having big goals for his teams, saying “Our expectation with our soccer program is that we compete for championships every year and that will never change.”
The players fully agree. Taylor Aylmer confirmed, “The first goal is to win the Big Ten regular season title. We’ve been to the Finals before and not just to make it, but to finally win it this year.” Adora Moneme added, “Win all of our home games and go to the Big Ten championship. We have gone in the past but haven’t yet won it, so that’s our big goal for us this season. Win that championship and then advance as far as we can in the NCAA’s.”
For LaPlant, she went a step further and pointed out something all Rutgers fans will love to here. “Our main goal is to make it as far as we can obviously. We want to win a Big Ten championship this year, which we haven’t done it yet. “We want to be the first team at Rutgers to pull that off, that’s really what we are working towards right now.”
With the season beginning this weekend, the Rutgers women’s soccer team will start a journey they hope ends with making history.