Big East – Cincinnati | DePaul | Pittsburgh | Seton Hall | Syracuse | Villanova
Big Ten – Indiana | Nebraska | Purdue
Pac-12 – Arizona State | Colorado | Oregon | Utah | Washington
SEC – Mississippi State
WCC – Gonzaga | Loyola Marymount | San Francisco
Entering 2010, it was easy to label the current period of Rutgers soccer as a sort of Golden Era for the program. With three NCAA Tournament appearances in four years, a pair of second round appearances, and a Sweet Sixteen showing in 2008, the Scarlet Knights were quietly establishing themselves as one of the Big East’s most solid programs. It was a welcome change from Rutgers’ early history in DI when the program strung together many winning seasons but could only make it to one NCAA Tournament under the decade and a half reign of former head coach Charlie Duccilli.
It didn’t take long for current boss Glenn Crooks to right the ship in New Brunswick. Rutgers were in the Sweet Sixteen in his second season in charge in 2001 and made two Big Dances in his first four years after another berth in 2003. A couple of flat years ensued, but the program roared back to life with its best win total ever in 2006, going 16-3-4 and finishing at #13 in the final RPI. One more step back in 2007 preceded Rutgers making back-to-back NCAA Tournaments for the first time in their history in 2008 and 2009.
Two years on though, and Rutgers suddenly finds itself at a cross roads after two straight years out of the Big Dance. 2010 was marked by dogged attempts to fill some big losses, a process that saw the club lose to minnows Monmouth in non-conference play, while league form was middling at best. The end result was an exit in the Big East Tournament quarterfinals and being left out of the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2007. Hoping to prove 2010 was just a blip, Rutgers started out the 2011 season with three wins in four, though most of those opponents vanquished weren’t close to the Scarlet Knights’ level, with the only loss coming to Boston College. Crooks’ side did win two of their final three heading into league play, but it was hard to notice the total lack of quality wins on their resume as Big East season began.
Rutgers would beat Villanova at home in the league opener, but their form promptly dipped at an alarming rate. The club would go without a win in their next five, the only point being picked up in a 0-0 draw with an abject Pittsburgh side. A win against DePaul and draw with Notre Dame revived flagging postseason hopes, but a split on the penultimate weekend of the regular season meant that the club needed to win on the final day against Seton Hall to be assured of making the Big East Tournament. Despite a battling effort, Rutgers would be held to a 2-2 draw against the Pirates and would get lucky as Villanova were crushed by Georgetown in their finale.
The teams finished level on points for the final spot in the Big East Tournament, but Rutgers moved into the postseason on head-to-head. There wouldn’t be a postseason renaissance though, as Rutgers would limp to a disappointing 1-0 defeat to a Providence side making their first postseason appearance in ages and who ended up using just one substitute. The postmortem of the 2011 season isn’t kind to the Scarlet Knights, who finished out of the Top 100 in the RPI for the first time in over half a decade, while the eight wins were the lowest of Crooks’ tenure, the last time the team didn’t win more than eight games being in 1999.
It’s not hard to figure out what went wrong for Rutgers last season. Or more specifically, when things started to go wrong for Crooks’ side. It was on September 16 against Villanova, a date which shows that the Scarlet Knights won the battle against Villanova but essentially lost the war as they lost scoring talisman Jonelle Filigno for the season with an Achilles injury. Filigno had disappointed in large part as a highly touted prospect coming into 2011 but had looked a budding force for the Scarlet Knights after scoring six in seven through the first month of the season for Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights would score just seven goals in eleven games after the injury, all but scuttling their chances at a return to the NCAA Tournament.
It’s a shame, because their defense was mighty good, conceding just eighteen goals on the season, with their rearguard above average in Big East play. Had Filigno been healthy, Rutgers would’ve likely been NCAA Tournament contenders. The question that must be raised of course is just how was that offense allowed to be so one-dimensional and reliant on Filigno in the first place.
It’ll likely be very much ‘as you were’ in goal for the Scarlet Knights this season with most of last year’s keepers returning to the fold in Jersey. Fifth-year senior Emmy Simpkins seems likely to reprise her role as starter for her final season with the Scarlet Knights. Simpkins was hobbled by injuries for her first two seasons with the club but has since been first choice in goal for Rutgers. Classmate Jessica Janosz appears to have the upper hand for the backup role this year after starting in three Big East games down the stretch. She’ll likely battle junior Samantha Perretty, who had played in six games as a rookie in 2010, battling Simpkins for time but who also missed all of last season through injuries. Simpkins probably isn’t going to pull up any trees in goal, but she’s a solid, experienced keeper who should serve Rutgers well one final time in 2012.
Continuity in goal is a good thing, because Rutgers does have to make some adjustments in the backline with the graduation of Julie Lancos and Jasmine Edwards. Lancos had been highly touted beginning her career a Florida State but ended up transferring back home to Rutgers and ended up being a solid performer at center-back for three seasons. A dead ball specialist with a bullet of a shot, Lancos also was used in attack from time-to-time as a senior. Edwards had been a reserve for three seasons but had a breakout season in 2011, making sixteen starts at full-back and chipping in with a pair of assists on game winning goals. The San Diego native probably would have started every game had she not been felled by a concussion for a few weeks.
Fifth-year senior and full Canadian international center-back Shannon Woeller is the club’s defensive centerpiece and will be counted upon to steady the ship again this year. In and out of the team due to international commitments over the past few seasons, Crooks will be hoping for a full season out of his star defender this season after Woeller was limited to fifteen games last year. Sophomore Morgan Kennedy looks a good bet to join her in central defense this season. Kennedy was a top reserve for much of last season and managed seven starts and can fill in either a center-back or defensive midfield role.
Classmate Logan White will likely slot in at full-back after making a successful transition to full-back from forward last year. A little more comfortable in defense now, White could be a defender due a breakout year for the Scarlet Knights. Junior Tori Leigh is a likely bet for the other flank, having taken over a starting full-back spot for much of the latter part of last season. Leigh had shown definite potential as a rookie, seeing the most action of any freshman in 2010 and looks to be well on her way to cashing in on that potential. Returning depth is a little light, though sophomore Allie Gordon did see sparse action last year as a rookie and could fill in at center-back.
Crooks does add some more prime talent to the equation in this unit though. Portugal youth international Erica Sousa comes from powerhouse Albertson Fury as a starring center-back, but her lack of height likely means a move to full-back in the college ranks. The club also adds Brianne Reed, who Crooks has touted as a fierce tackle and strong in the air while also possessing a crowd pleasing flip-throw. There are some imposing losses to overcome, but Woeller’s a great anchor, and the continuing pipeline of young talent should ensure Rutgers doesn’t slip too much, if at all, this season.
Center midfielder Ashley Medcalf is a big loss for the club both figuratively and literally, standing at 6’0″. Medcalf leaves as a four-year starter whose presence was felt far beyond a box score, though she did manage a couple of goals before she ended her college career last season. Canadian youth international Karla Schacher also leaves after a career blighted by gruesome injuries, including a dislocated ankle in 2006 and a torn ACL injury that curtailed her season early last year. After scoring five goals in 2009 and 2010, her loss early last year was another cutting blow for the Scarlet Knights.
Fifth-year senior Stefanee Pace looks like the leader of this bunch this year. Pace missed her freshman year in 2008 but roared to life a season later with six assists and three goals. Pace hasn’t quite matched those heights since but has made her goals timely, with both last season going down as game winners. Her experience also figures to be a big help with the graduation of Medcalf and Schacher. Fellow senior Maura McLaughlin also looks likely to start after being in the first XI for all but one game last year. McLaughlin has been a key starter for three seasons so far and has great versatility as well with her ability to slot in at full-back when necessary. Replacing Medcalf is the big task ahead of Crooks.
Of the returnees, fifth-year senior Maija Savics seems to have an upper hand on the vacant starting spot after four starts last year while spending the past few seasons as a key reserve. Also in the mix could be senior Rachel Breton, who was a top reserve in midfield and defense last year with three starts as well, and spritely junior Paige Alexander, who saw brief action last season after transferring from Army.
The club could be looking for an instant contribution from rookie Gabby Moreno, a prototypical attacking midfielder who has shown well in recent ECNL competition. Pace and McLaughlin are solid enough, but replacing Medcalf is a big ask and could mean this group takes a slight step back this year.
Crooks will be hoping to get some quality from his quantity this year, as Rutgers has at least twelve forwards in serious contention for major minutes in the attack this year. The only lock for a starting spot (if healthy) is Filigno, thought of as a big part of the Canadian WNT’s future in some circles. Filigno may be talented, but she’s also beginning to develop a reputation as a brittle player as well after missing most of two of the last three seasons through injury. Filigno stayed healthy in 2010 but showed only flashes of her potential with just four goals. Last year looked to be an entirely different story altogether, with Filigno opening up on fire with the aforementioned six goals, only to be downed by injury once again. If she can stay off the training table, you get the sense though that this could be a breakout year for the Canadian.
A likely contender for a starting spot alongside her is sophomore Stefanie Scholz. Despite not being the most heralded of the club’s forward recruits last year, Scholz was impressive, starting all but one match and adding three goals to her career ledger. Scholz in effect stole many of the headlines that had been expected to go the way of Canadian Amy Pietrangelo.
Already a full Canadian international and a Canadian U20 Player of the Year, Pietrangelo was expected to have a big impact in the starting lineup as a rookie instead. But the Laval native struggled to crack the starting lineup, starting just three times and scoring just once. Much, much more will be expected this season, though even a starting place isn’t assured. Another second-year player, Cassie Inacio, also impressed last season with her pace giving opponents all sorts of problems. Inacio is also capable in midfield and may be auditioned there considering the depth here and the needs there.
There are secondary options galore to choose from for depth. Fifth-year senior April Price could be back among the goals after being hobbled by a knee injury much loofa last season. Price has shown she can be a factor when healthy, with five goals in 2010 serving as evidence. Another looking to beat the injury bug is junior Maria Gerew, who started three matches early in the year but tore her ACL at the end of September. Senior Taylor Reinecke and sophomores Kristen Siano and Brielle Buis also saw fleeting action last year and could factor in for more minutes this season. A big wild card is Tricia DiPaolo, who missed all of last season with an ACL injury but who could be in line for a sixth-year of eligibility due to medical hardship. DiPaolo isn’t prolific, but she was timely in 2010, with all three of her goals going down as game winners.
If all that wasn’t enough, the club adds in some more attacking talent through this year’s recruiting class. Rachel Cole comes from local powerhouse club PDA and has a rocket of a shot in addition to pace and finishing ability. Canadian Samantha Valliant’s yet another prospect from north of the border to make their way to Jersey and could conceivably play anywhere on the pitch such is her versatility. There are lots and lots of options to choose from for Crooks and his staff, but it’s highly likely that Filigno’s play will reflect on how successful this unit is at the end of the year.
It’s crunch time for Crooks and his squad as they try and reverse a troubling trend of underachievement. The Scarlet Knights have not lived up to expectations given some of the great talent they’ve been bringing in, and while you’d argue that injuries have hurt, it’s not like Rutgers is a club struggling for depth, certainly not compared to some of their Big East rivals. With the likes of Filigno and Woeller, in addition to other great young talent, there’s no reason for the Scarlet Knights to be aiming for anything less than a spot in the NCAA Tournament.
While the defense and midfield have some losses to overcome, there’s enough returning and coming in to think that they’ll be fine. Rutgers’ fate may ultimately hang on Filigno’s shoulders. If she’s in form and firing true, they could well cause some waves in the Big East and perhaps beyond. If not, the Scarlet Knights may struggle to make it back to the NCAA Tournament, which could see Crooks begin to come under increasing pressure.