It was only seven months ago in what was an adjusted season schedule due to COVID-19 that Rutgers women’s soccer saw its NCAA Tournament dreams end with a second round draw in which Clemson advanced in a penalty kick shootout. Having your season end that way is a cruel fate to suffer in any sport.
This past Sunday, the Scarlet Knights faced the same challenge of needing to win a penalty kick shootout to keep their season alive. After holding a late lead against No. 8 TCU before the Horned Frogs tied the score in the 85th minute, it remained tied at 1-1 after double overtime. This time they were able to advance in an epic battle that resulted in a 5-4 shootout win over seven frames.
The star of this instant classic that sent the program to its first Elite Eight appearance since 2015 was goalkeeper Meagan McClelland. The senior captain has had a tremendous career at Rutgers and had already made eight saves through double overtime. However, in saving three consecutive penalty kicks before Allison Lowrey ended it with a game winning strike, she achieved an all-time moment that will live in program lore forever.
“Meagan is great shot stopper so she will always give us a chance to be successful,” said assistant coach Lubos Ancin, who coaches the goalkeepers. “To be able to read it and make those decisions at those times was critical for the success of the team. The mental part is huge. We needed her to do that for us. That’s what we see her do on a daily basis in practice. It’s so good it finally came to fruition for us. We’re really happy for her. All of her teammates and the coaching staff, we are just so proud of her the way that she performed.”
In speaking with McClelland a day after her standout performance, she explained her mindset entering the shootout. “So many emotions are going on. Looking at my teammates, realizing we all have each other’s backs, the love for each other and our love for the sport, I was going in with confidence,” said McClelland. “That is what the goalkeeper needs to do going into a penalty shootout. We just worked out butts off for 110 minutes and now it was time to get it done and end it. Just approaching it with confidence and a bit of joy, knowing you can make the save.”
Before McClelland made her mark in the shootout with the three saves, she was the third Rutgers player called upon to take a penalty kick. It’s not so common to see the goalkeeper take a penalty kick themselves during a shootout. However, McClelland has attempted them before including making one in the loss to Clemson last season.
“I think it’s an extra bit nervy because with PK’s, I like to talk to the other players and get in their head a bit. Now when it’s me having to take a penalty kick, it’s harder,” said McClelland. “I’ve taken PK’s in high school and before in college. It’s about being confident. I’ve practiced them multiple times and I know what it feels like to be on the other side of it. It’s all about your confidence at the time. I always try to be positive in my head and knowing I’m going to try to put the ball away.”
Riley Tiernan followed McClelland, Amirah Ali and Becci Fluchel in converting penalty kick attempts and the shootout was tied 4-4 heading into the final frame. McClelland then took over and shut TCU out on their final three attempts. They were all different saves, as she saved the first shot low left, then low right, followed by the final save being made high left.
Asking about her mental approach in preparing to save a penalty kick, McClelland stated, “It’s hard to describe and I feel like I don’t even know what’s going on in the moment. I blackout. It’s a little bit of everything. Sometimes you can read it, sometimes you react. Sometimes it’s a bit of guessing. So many things that go into it honestly.”
While athletic ability, hard work and desire are major components of being a successful athlete, one trait fans tend to overlook is having elite focus in the moment. McClelland demonstrated that high level of focus in saving three penalty kicks in a row. So much so, that she admittedly lost track of the order and actually thought Rutgers won before they actually did.
“I think I was a little too excited and very confused,” when asked about her animated reaction to making the first save. She continued, “After the second PK, I thought we won again. The ref said, ‘you still need to score’. I don’t know. I saw the bench react to my save and had such a big reaction. I thought ‘my god did we just win?’ Honestly, I didn’t pay attention to the order. I just thought I have to save the ball, score the ball, nothing else matters. I trust my teammates and even though it took a couple of extra rounds, I still had 100% belief and finally was able to celebrate in the end.”
As for how McClelland felt when it was finally over and Rutgers was victorious, she stated, “My first reaction was thanking the lord because the idea of having to make four PK saves in a row, I’m not sure if that would happen. I think it was more of my heart rate went up because we won. My heart was beating so fast and with the PK’s, I was thinking this could go on forever. It was a relief and exciting. It was so awesome.”
Sunday’s performance was just more of the same for the Kearny, New Jersey native, who stepped into the starting role in her first game as a freshman back in 2018. She had big shoes to fill in replacing legendary goalkeeper Casey Murphy. If it phased McClelland, you’d never know. She hit the ground running in being named Big Ten Freshman of the Year and earning Third Team All-Big Ten honors in her first season. She has followed that up with three consecutive Second Team All-Big Ten selections. In addition, she has earned Academic All-Big Ten honors twice.
McClelland is making her mark in the program’s record book as well. She is currently third all-time with 40 career shutouts as well third in single-season shutouts with 13 so far this fall. She also is fourth all-time in program history with a 0.640 goals against average and needs one more save on Friday to move into fifth place all-time at Rutgers.
Ancin explained what has made her so successful, stating, “We’ve been with Meagan for so long from the club level to college. Being able to work with her from day to day, it’s a pleasure. Her consistency and being able to perform on the biggest stages is a big part of it. The mentality and growth through experience in the four years she has gathered, now she is applying it.”
As for her approach, Ancin stated, “What you see is what you get. She is just a hard working kid who loves to play. She has been tremendous throughout the years and that’s just who she is. We are so happy to have her. Finally after doing what she does on a daily basis in practice, she showed everybody what she can do. We are all really proud of her.”
As for her relationship with Ancin, McClelland said, “Lubos is that best. He is one of the coaches who has really developed me. He worked at PDA, so I got to work with him a couple of times which was good. Got to see his coaching skills. He’s always been there for me and has been my no. 1 supporter, on and off the field. He has always believed in me through the ups and downs I’ve had in my career. He’s a great coach and a great person. We have a really good relationship.”
Of course, being a successful goalkeeper means having a great defense in front and having strong communication in the back. McClelland has started every game in her four seasons with Big Ten Defender of the Year and two-time First Team All-Big Ten performer Gabby Provenzano. The duo combined to make two critical saves against TCU on Sunday.
McClelland explained why she, Provenzano and the rest of the backline work so well together. “Gabby is one of my best friends off the field and playing with her and the rest of the backline is amazing. We have our “no goal patrol squad” and we always stick together. They do so much to make my job easier. It’s awesome when I have their backs and then they get to make an amazing game saving save off the line which is awesome. We have a relationship like no other and we just love the time we get on and off the field with each other.”
Rutgers is top 20 in the nation this season in shutout percentage and goals against average. Other key contributors to the backline have been senior Shea Holland, junior Allison Lynch, sophomore Emma Misal, as well as heralded freshmen Emily Mason and Kassidy Banks.
Ancin echoed the importance of the backline of the defense when it comes to team success. “We talk about it all the time that it takes 11 people to defend and 11 people to attack. From a defensive aspect, everybody needs to do their job to make the goalkeeper’s life easier.”
The assistant and former Rutgers goalkeeper for the men’s team from 2003-2005 continued in saying, “What the girls have done in front of her, its just been unbelievable. We always talk about the best goalkeeper is the one who doesn’t have to make any saves. It’s who can organize the team and the team being able to stop anything in front of her before she has to do anything. I think that’s one thing we live by is that the teamwork of everybody in front of her has been unbelievable for her to do what she needs to do. When the chances arise, (McClelland) needs to make that save and she needs to be there. We pride ourselves on all of the shutouts and all of that defensive work. From Gabby to everybody, they’ve been unbelievable to make sure that we are successful as a team.”
As for what’s ahead for No. 1 seed Rutgers (20-3-0), they host No. 2 seed Arkansas (19-4-0) on Friday night at 7 p.m. at Yurcak Field. It’s a matchup between regular season champions from the Big Ten and SEC. McClelland explained how the team has handled things since the the third round victory and how they are resetting their focus for the NCAA Tournament Quarterfinals.
“On Sunday, we got to enjoy the win and the celebration. We got to hang out with our families and really enjoy it,” said McClelland. “Usually when Monday hits, we work on recovery and turn the page and now it’s all about ‘ok, we did that but we still have one more to get to the Final Four.’ Refocusing on the training grounds, focusing on our new opponent. Because everyone we play is so good and give us such a great battle, nothing we do on the field is easy. Refocusing on what our end goal is, which right now is win the next game and make it to the Final Four. We know what we are capable of and are just preparing for Friday.”
Rutgers is looking to advance to the College Cup for the second time in six years. No matter when her career ends, McClelland will go down as one of the best goalkeepers in program history. Her senior season has been her finest and Sunday’s performance earned her well deserved praise. With McClelland in goal, Rutgers has a chance to extend its season even further with a win on Friday.
Watch all five of Rutgers’ penalty kick goals and McClelland make three straight saves on the way to winning the shootout to advance to the Elite Eight: