In a season that the Rutgers women’s soccer team has won the Big Ten regular season title for the first time ever and advanced to the Final Four for the second time in program history, they’ve been led by their veteran star players. Frankie Tagliaferri was named Big Ten Midfielder of the Year, Gabby Provenzano was named Big Ten Defender of the Year and Amirah Ali earned First Team All-Big Ten honors for the fourth consecutive season. All are fifth-year players and were named All-Americans on Thursday. Along with senior goalkeeper Meagan McClelland, they have been the core contributors for the most successful team in program history.
While there are many other important contributors on this team, especially in the sophomore class, the play of several newcomers have helped Rutgers achieve so much already with the opportunity to win a national championship ahead this weekend.
Riley Tiernan delivered the decisive penalty kick for Rutgers to advance past Arkansas in the Elite Eight last Friday. She had already produced a goal and an assist in what ended in a 2-2 draw in double overtime. The Big Ten Freshman of the Year leads the team with 13 assists and is second with 8 goals and 29 points.
Emily Mason came to Rutgers as a two-time National High School Player of the Year. After rotating along the backline most of the season, she has started every postseason game and played all 110 minutes of the past two NCAA Tournament games against Big XII champion TCU and SEC champion Arkansas.
Kassidy Banks has started 19 of 24 games along the backline and was named to the Big Ten All-Freshman Team.
Midfielder Kylie Daigle plays behind Tagliaferri and has come off the bench all season but has made an impact all along. She was also named to the Big Ten All-Freshman Team. Her play has consistently improved throughout the fall and played a prominent role in the Arkansas game.
When asking head coach Mike O’Neill about his heralded freshman class this week, which also includes Gia Girman, Cameron Bennett and Courtney Ruedt, he praised them in every way. The 2021 recruiting class the freshmen were a part of was ranked seventh nationally prior to their arrival at Rutgers.
“We knew they were good people and very talented players. I remember watching them the first day of preseason and that excitement of being here,” said O’Neill. “You think about the atmosphere that’s been created for development and thinking about their progression and the impact that they’ve had. It’s pretty special to watch.”
It wasn’t easy for the freshmen who have made an impact this season.
Mason explained, “Obviously in the beginning it was a challenge. The game is played at a different speed and involves a lot more challenges. Having such an open team allowed the transition to be smoother. The support and having people wanting to teach me new things and helping me learn along the way.”
Daigle agreed and said, “Obviously the transition is a lot different. I think the club to college transition is definitely a more physical game. That is something I’ve never had to take into consideration because I consider myself a technical player. That’s been the hardest thing for me in transitioning into the Big Ten, one of the most physical leagues. I’ve had a lot of fun and this has been the most exciting soccer experience I’ve had so far.”
A key to so many freshmen playing key roles has been the leadership of the veterans.
Tiernan has excelled in an attacking role up front and the opportunity to play alongside two of the most experienced and celebrated players in women’s college soccer in Ali and Tagliaferri has made a big impact.
“They’ve definitely helped me and are amazing role models,” Tiernan said. “They’re extremely talented players. But not only the way they play soccer, but the way that they act. They’re always respectful and always teaching me. I’m younger and they have a lot more experience. I use that as an advantage because they’re easy sources, I take advantage of that.”
Daigle said of Tagliaferri, “Frankie is my mom on the team. I think I ask her the most questions of anyone, knowing she is a fifth year on the team in my spot. We have a lot in common in how we play as she is a very technical player. I’ll say ‘Hey Frankie, you stay after practice and do extra running. What is your schedule like? What days do you do your lifting? What days do you do your cardio?’ I’m sure she didn’t know all of this stuff as a freshman. The more I ask, the more I know and the earlier I start, the better I’ll be.”
As for Mason and Banks, the leadership and experience of Provenzano and McClelland has helped them quite a bit.
“They’ve helped me an endless amount,” stated Mason. “I went from outside back to currently playing center back. Switching between the two positions was a little challenging. I had a lot of help and support from role models I look up to. It helped me learn it faster. They’re amazing teammates to have because they’re not afraid to tell you things straight. You can’t take it personal. It’s all with a good heart. They just want you to be a better player.”
Banks agreed in saying, “They’ve been really helpful. When I’m on the field, I can always count them to help and tell me what to do. I know if I make a mistake they always have my back, pick me up and tell me I have the next one.”
Culture is a word that is often overused by coaches, but has always rung true for this program. Incorporating highly ranked recruits year after year into the program while building a strong chemistry has been key to having sustained success.
“The freshmen class has made a contribution but in order to do that, they’ve needed to be able to work and be part of the team dynamic,” explained O’Neill. “They need to understand the importance of that. You have to be able to push yourself every day to get better. Whether you are a freshman or anyone on this team, that’s the most important piece of what you do. Coming out every day and challenging yourself to be better and be better for the team. They’ve done a very good job with that along with everybody else.”
Five of the seven freshmen played on the same club team, PDA South, including Daigle, Banks and Mason, which helped the group hit the ground running in their rookie season.
“It made the transition easier because we already had that connection that a lot of teams try to find during the season,” explained Mason. “I think the connection we had made the team stronger because we didn’t have that awkward period where you are learning how to play with each other. We had that already.”
As for Tiernan, she knew most of her classmates coming in as well. However, her familiarity with the program ran even deeper with her sister, Madison, having starred for Rutgers on the 2015 Final Four team and now serving as a volunteer assistant coach. Watching her back then helped prepare her for the present.
“Watching my sister play helped me a lot. It also motivated me a lot too,” said Tiernan. “I saw the high level that it (Final Four) was at and the excitement that they felt. That team had a different mentality that was inspiring. When I saw it take place, I immediately knew I wanted to be there one day too. Once I was with this team, we just knew. We all felt it and something clicked. We knew that it was going to be a special year for us. My sister is super excited and know she feels great being back here again this time as a coach.”
After scoring four goals in the regular season, Tiernan has already scored four goals in the NCAA Tournament. Her emergence has turned Rutgers into an even more dangerous team in their ability to attack offensively. As for her evolution this season, she explained, “Over time I’ve adjusted and learned the difference in college soccer from club and high school. After practice and the team is just improving each more and more, it allows me to be more confident and be myself. I can trust my teammates and the players behind me.”
As for Daigle, coming off the bench was a major adjustment but something that has made her an even better player this season.
“It was hard at first coming off the bench because I’ve never done that before,” stated Daigle. “I’ve always started in transitioning into a new team. As the season has progressed, I learned to play my role and go into the game doing what I need to do for the team. Whether I get 15 minutes or 45 minutes, go in and do what I can to give the team a lift. I think I’ve adjusted pretty well. At first, I was having difficulty and not playing like myself. I’ve realized my role is to come in and change the game. I think that’s what I’ve done. I’m settling for what I have and competing when I’m on the field. ”
For Mason, she was the most decorated incoming freshman as two-time national player of the year. While she has started 17 games this season, her minutes have steadily increased since October and she has played all but 13 minutes in the NCAA Tournament.
“My confidence has grown but I don’t take any opportunity for granted,” Mason said. “I appreciate everything that I get. I know I’ve worked extremely hard to get everything I have. I’m very grateful and appreciative of it all.”
The biggest moment of Mason’s career came in the first overtime against Arkansas, when she made a season saving play with a clean takeaway of the ball in the box without fouling the opposing player. It was a gutsy play that was executed flawlessly.
“In the moment, I didn’t think much of it. I was just doing what I can and needed to do for the team,” Mason asserted. “I knew if she was to finish, that the game would have been over. I know that we worked so hard to make it to that point. I definitely felt relief in that I did something to prove I’m willing to put everything on the line for this team. We deserve everything that we are getting because we work so hard. It was one play in the game that had a huge moment, but there were so many other plays from everyone else that made it easier for me to sacrifice everything for it.”
As for the opportunity ahead of them this weekend, Banks spoke like a veteran leader. “I think we are always preach focusing on game at a time,” she said. “At practice we focus on the next game and put everything into it. Everyone is always working to make each other better and take it one game at a time.”
Florida State (20-1-2) is the No. 1 team in the country and will be a major challenge. However, this Rutgers team has been passing every test that’s come their way in the NCAA Tournament. Advancing past two conference champions in penalty shootouts has only made them stronger now that they are in the Final Four,
“I think because those games were as hard as they were in fighting to the very end to win, I think that motivates us even more,” stated Daigle. “It’s easy to get an early goal and hold on the rest of the game. We had to comeback from some really tough spots. We haven’t been a team that got scored on first and needed to comeback from that. Overcoming some of those challenges have made us so much stronger. I feel like there isn’t anything we can’t do.”
Rutgers is in this position because of their strong team culture and the contributions from so many players on this team. However, the freshmen have made a tremendous difference in elevating this team’s performance this fall.
“They seemed to find their way and have been learning along the way,” said O’Neill. “They’re getting better and you can see them developing as people. To see where they are today in the classroom and on the field, it’s really special to be a part of.”
As for O’Neill’s message to the team ahead of Friday’s national semifinal (7 p.m. ET, ESPNU), Daigle made it clear what Rutgers is there for.
“The most important thing that coach O’Neill told us was that ‘There are teams that go into the Final Four happy to be there and there are teams that go who are trying and competing to win.’ Right now, we are happy to be there, but we aren’t there to have fun. It’s a business trip and we are there to take it all home.”
If the Scarlet Knights are able to win the first national title in program history, it will be a total team effort. Regardless of what happens, the freshmen class has made an indelible mark on this team and will continue to do so for this program moving forward.
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