The first team to kick the 2021 fall season off for Rutgers athletics is also the program that has been the most consistent and successful in recent years. The women’s soccer program has simply been a cut above the rest on the banks and a model of consistency under head coach Mike O’Neill.
The Scarlet Knights have made nine consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances, including seven with O’Neill in charge and two as an assistant. They’ve advanced to at least the second round in five of the last seven years. That included this past spring after the NCAA Tournament was postponed last fall due to COVID-19. Rutgers also advanced to a second straight Big Ten Semifinal and finished the regular season in the Top 3 of the conference for the third straight year.
An overall record of 9-3-4 and a program-record seven All-Big Ten honorees, two First Team All-Region selections, a First Team All-American, and a MAC Hermann Trophy semifinalist only helped maintain the high level of success that the program has produced under O’Neill.
This team continues to excel in the classroom in addition to on the pitch. They had a 3.602 spring team grade point average that included 17 Academic All-Big Ten selections, and 17 Dean’s List honorees. Credit the student-athletes for persevering on and off the field during a pandemic and the coaching staff for fostering an environment that helped them be so successful.
In reflecting on last season, O’Neill said in an interview with On The Banks this summer, “Obviously disappointed in the way that it ended but we’re especially proud of so many things both on and off the field in how they turned adversity into opportunity. Along the way, I think we became better people, better players and a family.”
O’Neill continued, “We talk so much about the importance of being a family and sticking together. To build that dynamic you need time together and that was difficult this past year but I think we were able to achieve it because we had the opportunity to play and have a meaningful experience.”
He added, “in tough times, you rely on family. It was a tough time, we needed each other and we came together.”
The roster returns 21 letterwinners, 12 starters, an All-American, two All-Region and six All-Big Ten selections for the 2021 fall season. Rutgers is ranked No. 25 in the United Soccer Coaches 2021 Preseason Poll, which seems low based on the depth and talent of this team. The Scarlet Knights are arguably as talented as they’ve ever been, which is significant based on the success they’re accustomed to having.
The biggest news of the offseason was the program’s first three-time All-American, Amirah Ali, deciding to return this fall for an extra year granted due to COVID-19.
“We’ve been fortunate to have quite a few All-American’s both academically and on the soccer field,” said O’Neill. “Amirah is in really good company to be our first ever three-time All-American. Amirah is a very talented player and has put a lot of time in to being successful. We have a saying here, ‘when one achieves, we all achieve’ and her team and coaching staff are all really proud of her. Just to see her grow the last four years as a player and a person has been really enjoyable to be a part of.”
In addition, another captain and defensive anchor in First Team All-Big Ten honoree Gabby Provenzano returns along with veteran defender Adriana Kuryla.
Having three talented and experienced players returning is a boost for a program aiming to win its first Big Ten championship for any Rutgers program this fall.
O’Neill said of their return, “We’re really excited with Amirah and Gabby deciding to come back, Adriana same thing. The hardest part about each year is saying goodbye to people that you care about. We talk about when you leave you have to make it a better program because you were here. That’s what Dana, Aolani, Nneka is did. The opportunity to have Gabby, Amirah and Adriana around another year, all of them are just really good people, it’s very hard to replace age and experience. Especially in the leadership roles that Gabby and Amirah play and the positions that all three of them play. We’re excited to have all three players back.”
The returning core also includes goalkeeper Meagan McClelland, who earned Second Team All-Big Ten honors, as well as three players who made the All-Freshman team in San Kroeger, Becci Fluchel and Emma Misal.
O’Neill has also added a top 10 ranked recruiting class for a second consecutive year.
Regarding the highly decorated group of freshman, they include two-time Gatorade National Player of the Year Emily Mason and Riley Tiernan, who USA Today named New Jersey’s honoree for selection as national athlete of the year in girls soccer. Tiernan’s sister, Madison, was a standout player for Rutgers from 2013 to 2016 and is a volunteer coach for the program.
Five of the seven freshman starred in a national All-Star game in June with Tiernan earning MVP honors. Four of the five goals scored in the game came off the feet of future Scarlet Knights.
“With the incoming class, it allows us to add depth at every position on the field. They are players that love to work and compete and to win. They’ve come into an already competitive environment. They are great additions to the program and we expect them to compete from day one. They’re just making it more competitive.”
In regard to Mason, who will be added to an already elite defense, O’Neill said, “The expectations of all the newcomers are very high. I’ve been fortunate to have been around Emily for many years. She just continues to work at her game and get better every day.”
On top of all the talent returning and added through recruiting, Rutgers was able to land All-American transfer Frankie Tagliaferri fron Penn State. The opportunity to play an extra year in her home state was a major win for the program. Adding Tagliaferri is a huge development for this team.
The Colts Neck, New Jersey native was the Big Ten points leader last season with 29, finishing second in both goals (10) and assists (9). She earned First Team All-Big Ten honors as well as Second Team All-American honors for this past season. Tagliaferri arrives at RU as the NCAA active leader in games played (90), eighth in assists (25) and 16th in points (79). She is also a member of the United States Women’s National team pool and has played at various levels beginning with the U14 team as youth player.
While adding her to mix might seem controversial after starring at rival Penn State, Tagliaferri played for PDA prior to college like many current Rutgers players did and relationships with many have remained strong.
“We are excited with the addition of Frankie,” said O’Neill. “She’s going to make a very talented incoming class even better. She understands the importance of team dynamics and family. She has a passion to win. She comes in with a strong resume and a lot of experience. That experience is going to help make an already talented incoming class and already talented team better. I think it will be an easy transition because she knows the staff, some players on the roster have been past teammates, and she has trained with many of our players in the offseason.”
Rutgers will play 11 of 17 regular season games at home, including non-conference matchups against Providence and Princeton, as well as Georgetown on the road. They’ll have three Big Ten games televised on BTN this season, including the conference opener against Penn State on September 19, Michigan on September 23 and Ohio State on October 3. You can view the full schedule here.
As to building team chemistry and preparing for this season, O’Neill is keeping things simple.
“I think the important part is that they work. They enjoy the competition and the daily routine and grind of being a student-athlete,” said O’Neill. “It’s not always easy and they work hard to be great players. Don’t worry about making mistakes. It’s so important in that they feel comfortable in who they are because that’s what brought them here. When you can continue to bring in strong student-athletes with character and talent. It takes a couple of days and it just works. You have to have that balance of leadership and experience that welcomes the competition and good people into the family.”
He added of the current roster that there is “a lot of character, a lot of characters and a lot of good players.”
As for how to build off of the spring campaign and setting expectations for this season, O’Neill has never shied away wanting Rutgers to achieve excellence.
“Ending the season after putting your heart and soul into it is going to hurt and that’s what you want. We need to look at last postseason and super charge our effort to make sure we come back and ready to go for this season,” said O’Neill.
He continued, “We are so proud of everything they have accomplished but we need to use how it ended to be more than ready for this fall. We compete for championships and that’s not going to change. It’s a group of players that we know they’ll be ready and focused on what they want to accomplish. The expectations are high and that’s never going to change. They want to be the best they can be in the classroom and on the field.”
After a 5-0 win over Navy in a scrimmage on Thursday, the Scarlet Knights will host Colgate on Sunday before the season opener on August 19 against Fairleigh Dickinson at Yurcak Field.
Rutgers women’s soccer will have its sights set on accomplishing great things this season. Under O’Neill, the program continues to set the standard that all Rutgers athletic programs hope to achieve. Hopefully, the Scarlet Knights raise the bar once again and in the process, raise a banner or two this fall as well.