When head coach Glenn Crooks took over the reins of the Rutgers women’s soccer program in 2000, it seems unfathomable to think that even he could have envisioned his team’s rapid development. As the Scarlet Knights approach the beginning of the 2004 campaign, Crooks’ fifth “On the Banks,” Rutgers is poised to establish itself as a perennial power after advancing in two of the last three NCAA Tournaments.
Crooks’ impact was immediate, as the 2000 Scarlet Knights earned a trip to the BIG EAST Conference Tournament for the first time in four years. Even with that quick turnaround, few could have foreseen the unprecedented success of the 2001 season. RU posted a 14-8-1 record, advanced to the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA Tournament and finished among the top 20 teams in the national polls, feats made even more amazing by the fact that nearly half of the roster was composed of newcomers.
Crooks and his charges earned the school’s first-ever BIG EAST Tournament victory in 2002, upsetting Miami 4-3 in the quarterfinals, and nearly toppled No. 6 West Virginia in the semifinals (3-2). Those 2002 Scarlet Knights just missed out on a second straight NCAA Tournament bid, but the 2003 team would have no such problem. Rutgers showed its mettle by earning a win at No. 14 Kentucky and ties against three nationally-ranked teams (No. 11 Penn State, No. 19 Boston College and No. 22 Princeton), as the Scarlet Knights played in one of the nation’s deepest conferences and one of the toughest regions. RU was rewarded for its efforts, receiving just the third NCAA Tournament bid in school history, and the Scarlet Knights proved that they belonged on the national stage. Playing at Penn State, Rutgers advanced past Maryland on penalty kicks (4-3) before losing a hard-fought battle to the No. 6 Nittany Lions, the eventual College Cup quarterfinalists, 3-1.
The freshmen who helped lead Rutgers to that magical Sweet Sixteen finish in 2001 are now seniors, and those five student-athletes help form the core of the 15 letterwinners and eight starters who return this fall for the Scarlet Knights. Their goal is simple, yet difficult – win the first BIG EAST title in school history and advance farther in the NCAA Tournament as seniors than they did as freshmen.
Defense was the strong suit for Rutgers last season, as the Scarlet Knights allowed 7.9 shots and 0.91 goal per match to fall just one short (10) of the school record for shutouts posted. While last year’s team didn’t allow many goals (20), the Scarlet Knights also didn’t score many themselves (25), resulting in half of the matches being decided by less than two goals and five ending in ties. Crooks knows that the same defensive effort, coupled with more balls finding the back of the net in the offensive third, will make the game’s waning moments much less stressful for the 2004 Scarlet Knights.
“Our strengths are in the goal, back and midfield,” he said. “Our biggest area of concern heading into this season is goal production. We feel confident that we will defend as a team and possess the ball in a manner that will limit the opportunities of our opponents. And, we feel certain that we will create enough opportunities to score. But, our ability to finish those opportunities is still in question. After Carli (Lloyd), we do not have a consistent scoring threat, so we are hoping that several players will emerge in that area.”
Finding the best-possible lineup will be a great problem to have for this year’s Scarlet Knights. Nine of the 22 players on the roster are listed at more than one position, making the number of possible formations almost limitless. The key for Crooks and his staff will be to retain that flexibility while also keeping each player comfortable in her role.
“Our biggest challenge is to develop a system that best suits the majority of personnel in our program,” the fifth-year mentor explained. “I think you are always tweaking things as the season progresses, and we are always considering adjustments, depending on the opponent. But, having a system in place that everyone understands is extremely important.”
The attack will be the area of the field that sees the most change from a year ago, most notably by the regular appearance of All-American Carli Lloyd (Delran, NJ) up top. The senior Hermann Trophy candidate has spent the majority of her career in the central midfield, tallying 96 points (40 g, 16 a) in three seasons “On the Banks.” However, she is not unfamiliar with the position, starting every match of the 2004 Nordic Cup with the U.S. Under-21 National Team at forward and collecting five points (2 g, 1 a).
“With Carli up top this year, we are attempting to give her more looks at the goal,” said Crooks. “She’s a tremendous finisher from in close and is one of the best players in the air nationally.”
Redshirt junior Christne Wentzler (Northvale, NJ) is the only Scarlet Knight who saw significant time as a forward last season, starting all 22 matches and contributing four points (1 g, 2 a). Redshirt senior Lissette Brandao (Rahway, NJ) has moved from midfield to back and now to forward during her career, scoring a total of seven goals. Redshirt junior Tara Froehlich (Red Bank, NJ) and junior Danae Risoli (Hillsborough, NJ) also are making the transition from the midfield. Both were hampered by injuries last year, as Froehlich missed the entire season and Risoli appeared in only 12 matches after scoring five goals as a freshman in 2002. Sophomores Domenique Esposito (Rivervale, NJ) and Kim Mineo (Glen Rock, NJ), as well as freshman Brittney Smith (Howell, NJ), also will be given an opportunity in the offensive third.
“Obviously, this is a key group for us,” Crooks stated. “We need more production from our forwards this season if we want to make more of an impact on the regional and national level. Every forward candidate has something in her game that is attractive. We just have to decide who is going to be the most effective and in what combination.”
It will be a mix of old and new in the midfield for the Scarlet Knights this fall, but most importantly, it also will be an area of talented depth.
Senior Michelle McNamara (Toms River, NJ) is the veteran of the group with her 55 career appearances. Junior Zoe Avner (Paris, France) and sophomore Tierney Brady (Brick, NJ) were both rookies last season, but they never played like first-year collegians as they helped form the backbone of the midfield. A trio of freshmen – Amanda Allessio (Langhorne, PA), Lizzie Miller (Newton, MA) and Leia Rispoli (Kendall Park, NJ) – will round out the group and will challenge for playing time.
“The midfield is a strong unit that has a nice blend of youth and experience,” Crooks said. “I think we will see a greater number of penetrating passes from this group than we have in the past, and I expect that our possession will improve as well. Zoe, Tierney and Michelle provide great bite and vision, and all three of them have played in big matches during their careers. Amanda and Leia are both technically-gifted, attack-minded players, while Lizzie has been limited by an injury this preseason.”
The back will be composed of two veteran defenders, a pair of converted midfielders and two newcomers.
Senior Risa Radin (Marlboro, NJ) has played in all but four matches during her career, earning freshman all-region honors at the conclusion of the 2001 season. She will be joined by junior Kim Brandao (Rahway, NJ), an all-region and all-BIG EAST selection a year ago. Sophomores Nicole Aquila (Piscataway, NJ) and Jaime Komar (Matawan, NJ) will adjust to the defensive third after both contributed assists from the midfield last season. Meghan Ryan (Crofton, MD), a medical redshirt as a freshman last year, will make her first appearance as a Scarlet Knight, as will Ashley Lunemann (Hillsborough, NJ), a five-year Olympic Development Program participant.
“In Kim and Risa I think we have one of the best, if not the best, center back tandems in the BIG EAST,” stated Crooks. “They are the leaders of our back line, and with the return of Meg from knee surgery, we have three quality center backs. On the wing, Jaime, Nicole and Ashley are contending for the other two spots in the back.”
Without a single college-tested keeper on the roster, the largest question mark entering the 2003 season was likely in goal. That question was quickly answered by Robyn Jones (Titusville, NJ), who posted a 0.92 goals-against average, .759 save percentage and eight shutouts on her way to being named the Soccerbuzz Mid-Atlantic Region Co-Freshman Goalkeeper of the Year. She will be pushed by redshirt freshman Lauren Acosta (Brick, NJ).
“Robyn had an outstanding freshman campaign, and we expect her to continue to grow,” Crooks said. “Lauren was hampered by injuries and was a medical redshirt last season. Going into the season, Robyn is the number-one keeper, and will be backed up by Lauren, but they have both been very good in training.”
Rutgers will be challenged by both its conference and non-conference slate this fall. Nine of the Scarlet Knights’ 19 regular-season matches will come against NCAA Tournament teams from a year ago, including the national runner-up (Connecticut), two Elite Eight teams (Santa Clara, Florida) and two Sweet Sixteen programs (West Virginia, Villanova).
RU’s home non-conference slate will be highlighted by the Rutgers Classic, as the Scarlet Knights will face nine-time College Cup semifinalist and 2001 national champion Santa Clara Friday, Sept. 10, at 8:00 p.m. The featured match of the home BIG EAST slate will be the West Virginia tilt Friday, Oct. 15, at 7:00 p.m.
With 12 teams for the 2004 season, the BIG EAST structure will change. Gone will be the two divisions, replaced by a single set of standings, and each team will play 10 of the 11 other members during the regular season. The top eight overall finishers will qualify for the BIG EAST Tournament.