PISCATAWAY, N.J. (August 20, 2014) –Rutgers women’s soccer’s foundation of success, built with a strong coaching pedigree, numerous All-Americans and a winning track record, is ready to take its game to yet another level as it enters the Big Ten Conference. The Scarlet Knights enter 2014 after making a conference championship appearance and reaching their third NCAA Tournament in five seasons a year ago. Under the leadership of first-year head coach Mike O’Neill and associate head coach Meg Ryan, both longtime veterans of the Rutgers staff, the foundation will continue to be built as RU settles into its new conference home.
Familiar faces return to lead the squad this season, including 2013 captains Cassie Inacio (Manalapan, N.J.) and Hayley Katkowski (Westford, Mass.). Serving as first-time captains will be juniors Erica Skroski (Galloway, N.J.) and Maggie Morash (Bernardsville, N.J.).
Katkowski and Inacio, who captain the midfield and top third, respectively, have served in their leadership roles since last season. Skroski and Morash both saw action in at least 20 games in each of the past two years, contributing to 22 shutouts since the 2012 season.
While longtime Scarlet Knight and multi-year captain Tricia DiPaolo will no longer be making contributions on the field for Rutgers, her leadership will be on display as a volunteer assistant coach in 2014.
“This will be the most experienced team that we have had here at Rutgers,” O’Neill said. “Their endless working mentality is what makes this group special. Losing Trish Dipaolo will be very hard on and off the field but I know the captains will be able to pick up right where we left off in the spring. Maggie, Hayley, Erica, and Cassie are competitors and they hate losing. Each captain has a quality that makes them special and we will need each one to do their role very well so the team can be successful.”
RU will also look to its returning seniors for guidance in its inaugural Big Ten season. Leading returning scorer Stef Scholz (South Hackensack, N.J.) and midfielders Brielle Buis (Franklin Lakes, N.J.) and Amy Pietrangelo (Laval, Quebec, Canada) return as part of a five-player senior class. Redshirt senior Tori Leigh (Hamilton, N.J.), who was sidelined for the entirety of last season with an ACL injury, will also make her return to the pitch on the backline for the Scarlet Knights.
The Scarlet Knights’ frontline is as dangerous as ever entering 2014, returning three of the team’s top four point scorers from last season. Scholz, who notched 10 goals and recorded 21 points to lead the team in both categories, will look to build off of her breakout junior campaign in which she was named Second Team All-American Athletic Conference.
“Stef is returning for her senior year and I could not be more proud of how hard she has worked and taken her game to the next level,” O’Neill said. “She grew up last year and rose to the occasion to be a dangerous threat up top when the team needed her to be.”
2013 American Athletic Conference All-Rookie Team selection Madison Tiernan (Voorhees, N.J.) exploded onto the scene in her first collegiate season, tallying 17 points with six goals and five assists. Her five helpers paced the Scarlet Knights, while her six finishes, one serving as the game-winner in her first-career game against Drexel on Aug. 23, 2013, was the third-best total on the team.
“Madison will need to continue the success that she had in her rookie year,” O’Neill said. “Even though she will only be a sophomore, Madison plays like a veteran. Nothing fazes her and she will do anything that we ask her to do so the team can win.
“She is a threat up top, not only due to her ability to create chances and score, but also her ability to be strong and hold the ball up top for us. Her physicality and strength is what we will need going into the Big Ten.”
Junior Rachel Cole (Teaneck, N.J.) pushed Rutgers to the American Athletic Conference Semifinals last season with a game-winning boot with 30 seconds remaining in the second overtime against Cincinnati (Nov. 3, 2013) at Yurcak Field. She returns seven points (2g, 3a) to the forward group. Sophomores Jessica Puchalski (South Brunswick, N.J.) and Ali Ryan (Bowie, Md.) will likely see increased roles after their rookie seasons. DeVolk, meanwhile, was held without a point in 2013, but brings invaluable leadership and finishing ability to the deep position.
“We have several forwards returning from last season, including Rachel, Amanda, Jess and Ali,” O’Neill said. “We will need them to have a big year and take more responsibility for being go-to players for us.”
Joining the squad’s forward group is rookie Jessie Sexton (Marietta, Ga.), who set a new school record with 101 goals and 21 assists in her time at Allen C. Pope.
“We are excited to have Jessie joining the team,” O’Neill said. “We will need her to use her speed and strength to standout with her ability to be in the right place at the right time to score goals.”
The midfield returns five players with significant starting experience in their careers. Katkowski has started the first 44 matches of her college career while averaging more than 89 minutes per match over the last two seasons. Pietrangelo and junior Sam Valliant (Markham, Ontario, Canada) provide a wealth of knowledge to the position as well, having combined for 30 starts in their careers.
Behind the upperclassman trio are three sophomores who will continue to factor into the midfield in 2014. Sophomore Tori Prager (Mount Laurel, N.J.) started 17 of 22 matches as a rookie, while classmate Jen Andresen (Wyckoff, N.J.) saw action in 20 games and made six starts. Nikki Hudson (Baltimore, Md.) rounds out the sophomores after seeing the pitch four times in 2013. Andresen and Prager each recorded points last season, tallying three and one, respectively.
“Our midfield is overstocked with talent this year and I am very excited to see who emerges who steps up and secures the position,” O’Neill said. “We have Hayley returning and she will need to be an anchor for us this year. I feel comfortable with any of the returning players playing side by side with Hayley. In the spring we spent several sessions developing two-way midfielders that defend and attack.
“We will need Tori, Nicole and Jen to become more of a physical presence and become dominant two-way players. I know Amy and Sam will step up and become leaders in the midfield with their worth ethic and experience on the international level.”
Newcomer Tori Ahde (Jackson, N.J.) will join the Scarlet Knights after starting for four years at Jackson Memorial and spending significant time on the New Jersey ODP Team from 2008-10. After earning nine starts last season as a sophomore, Gabby Moreno (Severna, Md.) will sit out a season recovering from an injury.
Arguably the cornerstone of the Scarlet Knights, the backline will not skip a beat in the program’s inaugural Big Ten season. Juniors Brianne Reed (Tinton Falls, N.J.) and Skroski both started all 22 games and logged more than 2,000 minutes last season, with each displaying their finishing ability on numerous occasions. Skroski scored three goals and two game-winners, while Reed recorded three points (1g, 1a) in her sophomore season.
Most importantly though, the duo helped blanket opposing attacks, leading the team to 11 shutouts last year and three-straight to end the season.
Sophomore Erin Smith (Medford Lakes, N.J.) looks to improve on a strong rookie showing after earning 14 starts and playing in 18 matches. Similarly, Morash returns after emerging as a consistent option at back a year ago.
Sophomore Jenna Seddon (Galloway, N.J.) and junior Erica Sousa (Franklin Square, N.Y.) will factor into the rotation, while junior Cassidy Benintente (Jackson, N.J.), redshirt freshman Shannon Phillips (Greenelt, Md.) and incoming freshman Courtney Norton (Mount Laurel, N.J.) will see their first collegiate action.
“This talented backline will continue to be the backbone of the program,” O’Neill said. “There is a reason why we don't get scored on a lot and it is because of the leadership of Erica Skroski and Brianne Reed. I am so proud of them and how they have developed.
“Along with Brianne and Erica we will be returning Erin Smith, Maggie Morash and Tori Leigh. Losing Trish Dipaolo will be hard to replace but I know that Jenna Seddon, Cassidy Benintente and Courtney Norton will be able to help and have an impact immediately.”
Perhaps the most youthful component of the Scarlet Knights, one the Rutgers staff is excited about is the competition at the goalkeeper position.
Junior Alana Jimenez (Ocean, N.J.) earned 126:51 minutes of action last season, the first time of her career, and is the leader in net. Behind her are three talented players in junior transfer Bree Benedict (Jamison, Pa.) and freshmen Casey Murphy (Bridgewater, N.J.) and Brianna Scarola (Chester, N.J.). Benedict joins RU after playing two years at Penn State-Abington, while Murphy and Scarola carry numerous club accolades and experience.
“Alana returns as our most experienced keeper,” O’Neill said. “Also competing and joining this talented group of goalkeepers in their first year will be Casey Murphy, Bree Benedict and Brianna Scarola.”
Murphy was one of the top goalkeeper prospects in the country and was rated as a four-star player by TopDrawerSoccer.com. The U.S. Soccer U18 National Pool Team player brings with her as much talent as she does excitement, “To the Banks.”
“Casey is one of the top goalkeepers in the country and we are happy that she chose to play in her home state. Even though she is a freshman she has tons of experience,” O’Neill said. “Pressure is not a word that Casey knows. She has been part of three national championships with her club team and has been involved with the U.S. U18 National Team. We expect her to come in and have a huge role for us right away.”
Overall, RU will face eight teams – all Big Ten opponents – that qualified for the NCAA Tournament in 2013, as well as three squads that ended the season ranked in the final NSCAA/Continental Tire Top 25.
The Scarlet Knights open the season in Piscataway on Friday, Aug. 22 against Stony Brook, Rutgers University’s first intercollegiate competition as a member of the Big Ten.
The 17-match schedule includes nine games at Yurcak Field and eight games away from Piscataway for the Scarlet Knights’ inaugural Big Ten season.
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