In what has been a difficult year across the board for Rutgers athletics, Mike O’Neill has his women’s soccer team as the pride of the university as the Scarlet Knights are on the cusp of another historic postseason.
This season marks the fifth straight year for the Rutgers women’s soccer team in the NCAA Tournament, a remarkable run of form for O’Neill whose team last season made the Final Four. This year’s run, including an 11-4-6 mark in the regular season as well as an appearance in the Big Ten Championship game, kept rolling along with a 3-0 win this past Saturday against Harvard.
Now with a game this weekend at Georgetown, a team Rutgers lost to in overtime earlier this season, the continued strong form of this team comes as a surprise to many college soccer insiders. But not to O’Neill or his team.
The program returned just 14 players from last year’s squad that made the Final Four, a young team that boasted 13 freshmen players. They also found out before the season that standout goalkeeper Casey Murphy would have to redshirt as she was called into the U-20 national team program.
Rutgers wasn’t supposed to do all that well in a Big Ten Conference that sent an astounding eight teams to the tournament this year. His young team wasn’t supposed to be up for the challenge.
“When we talked to the team when the season started and we went on the road and discussed again, what we talked about was it was a rebuilding year – that’s what we heard. Anyone involved in the program stood up and said ‘No it’s not. We’re not going to do that.’ We set our goals high and wanted to achieve our goals,” O’Neill told Metro.
“We knew that we had to grow up quicker and the incoming had to grow up on the field. We need to give it an opportunity to develop some successes. But also as important to learn from their mistakes. It’s important to be an environment that when you make a mistake, you know it’s alright. Especially when you’re a young player coming in.
“When you make a mistake just move on. Confidence is a key to the game.”
He’s gotten major contributions from senior Madison Tiernan, a forward who has tremendous ability on the ball and scored a brace in last Saturday’s home win over Harvard. But there has also been growth and development from the younger players, many of whom O’Neill has been unafraid to throw into the mix.
A number of the young freshmen such as midfielder Nicole Whitley and defenders Chantelle Swaby and Amanda Visco have not only played large roles with the team as freshmen but they’ve been counted on in critical moments of the season. All three are among the team’s leaders in minutes played as Whitley and Visco started every match this season for O’Neill.
O’Neill credits his senior leadership for helping to pave the way for his younger players to see the field and make an impact. He also knew before the season that given the roster overhaul, his freshmen would have to step up.
With one of the nation’s top recruiting classes, he believed they could do just that without any major dropoff.
“I did. I really believe that, when you make changes - and we changed just below half the team - it always takes a little bit to build the small things, the details. Understanding what quantity versus quality means. What I mean is that we’ve got a lot of players playing on top club teams,” O’Neill said. “When you get to college, there is always an adjustment period from going to playing a large role to a different role here. That takes time.”