By Tom Luicci
PISCATAWAY, N.J. (Aug. 21. 2014) – The initial impression from the rest of the Big Ten’s women’s soccer coaches was hardly flattering: Rutgers, brimming with returning talent, experience and depth from an NCAA Tournament team of a year ago, was picked tied for eighth with Iowa in the 14-team league.
That’s second-division status and that’s something first-year head coach Mike O’Neill – who has become accustomed to soccer success his entire life – has trouble accepting even before he coaches his first game at the college level.
The Scarlet Knights, at-large NCAA Tournament qualifiers after going 13-4-5 last year, open their season on Friday, Aug. 22, against Stony Brook at Yurcak Field.
“I don’t think we’re ever okay with being middle of the pack,” said O’Neill. “People have been using the word `transitional’ for this year because our move to the Big Ten. I don’t think there’s anything transitional about this group.
“Do we feel we’ll be competitive? Yes. But we won’t know what that means until we start playing in the Big Ten.”
O’Neill became the third coach in program history when Glenn Crooks retired this summer after 14 years at the helm. O’Neill had been Crooks’ assistant the entire team.
And despite success as one of the best players in New Jersey school history, as a college star at Seton Hall and as one of the nation’s most successful club coaches, he admits to having the jitters about his college head coaching debut.
“I’m a bit nervous,” he said. “I think that’s a good thing. I’ve been with Glenn for 14 years and I’m really excited about this opportunity. When the game is over (against Stony Brook) I’m sure I’ll feel relief because it’s underway. It’s really happening.”
O’Neill’s stress level is less than what it could be because of what he sees when he looks up and down this roster.
“I think one of the strengths of this team is we have great leadership,” said O’Neill. “We’ve got a great group of captains in Hayley Katkowski, Cassie Inacio, Erica Skroski and Maggie Morash. And we have great seniors.
“I think when you start on a new journey like the Big Ten, to have the experience we have is really going to help us. But it’s more than the experience. Their soccer IQ is good. They’re very driven. Everybody came in ready to go because we want to hit the ground running.”
O’Neill is certainly no stranger to soccer success. He led Kearny High School to a No. 1 ranking nationally as a senior, earning the Coggins Award as the state’s top player. He helped Seton Hall to two consecutive Elite Eight appearance as a collegian and currently coaches the PDA Slammers, the reigning U-17 ECNL national champions.
The Scarlet Knights’ playing style, he said, won’t vary much from what it was under Crooks. He wants Rutgers to be a possession-oriented team.
“We stress technical ability here and that’s a big part of keeping the ball,” he said. “We also want to look for our moments to be dangerous.”
The unofficial start to the O’Neill era has already been impressive, with the Scarlet Knights defeating No. 12-ranked West Virginia, 4-2, and Villanova, 4-0, in the preseason.
Asked if he had the makings of another NCAA Tournament team at Rutgers, O’Neill didn’t hesitate.
“Potentially, I think we’re good enough,” he said. “But that word – potentially – is a dangerous word. I will say we don’t necessarily feel this is a transitional year heading into the Big Ten.”