On Friday Dec. 3, the Rutgers women's soccer team were looking to check off one more quest in their incredible 2021 season and become the first team in program history to reach the NCAA College Cup Finals. First, they had to play a semi-final against #1 Florida State University.
The Rutgers Scarlet Knights had an incredible season under head coach Mike O'Neill and associate head coach Meghan Ryan Nemzer, who have each coached at Rutgers for 17 years. In 2021, the Scarlet Knights set program records for wins (15), conference wins (10) and perhaps the greatest of all their achievements was becoming the first Rutgers team in any men's or women's sport to win a Big Ten Title, which they accomplished at the conclusion of conference play in early November.
Rutgers performed higher than expectations during the regular season, posting a 19-3-2 overall record and going undefeated in the Big Ten Conference, but the famous quote from Dorothy said in the Wizard of Oz, 'We're not in Kansas anymore', would ring true for Rutgers who were in unchartered waters and one win away from reaching the first national title game in the women's soccer team's 37-year history.
During the regular season, Mike O'Neill's Rutgers had three All-Americans and they were senior forward Amirah Ali, senior defender Gabby Provenzano and senior midfielder Frankie Tagliaferri, Meanwhile, their opponent, the number-one ranked team according to the NCAA rankings, Florida State could match the accolades that the Rutgers women had achieved with three All-Americans as well: Emily Madril, Yuji Zhao and Jaelan Howell.
Even more impressive regarding Florida State was that the Seminoles ranked in the top-ten for goals-for-average and goals-against-average in all of women's soccer, which means they were dominant on both sides of the ball. Meanwhile, Rutgers were ranked third in the nation, according to the NCAA's RPI rankings and and tenth in goals-for-average behind their best scorers, who were Freshman forward Riley Tiernan and senior All-American Amirah Ali. Rutgers' offense was in form coming into this game and the reason is Tiernan kept scoring. The Freshman from Voorhees, New Jersey, 15 miles outside Philadelphia, had scored four goals in the NCAA tournament which were more than anybody. That includes Florida State's star striker BeataBeata Olsson who had scored 14 goals in the regular season which was 14th in the NCAA Division one this season.
Overall, the stage was set for an upset, as the underdog Scarlet Knights had traveled 3,000 miles to Florida to try and move past the semis and into the National Championship for the first time in program history.
Let the College Cup Semi Begin!
During the pre-game show on ESPNU, broadcasters Julie Foudy and Play-by-play voice Jen Hildreth, said that Rutgers was starting with a 4-2-4 formation.
Florida State controlled the tempo during the first ten minutes of the game. The top-ranked Beasts did this by keeping possessing the ball so that Rutgers's great offense could not find their groove.
The top-seed had the first scoring chance of the match, when midfielder Clara Robbins sent a cross to the back-post. Her cross was headed back into the box where LeiLanni Nesbeth would have a clear header that she slammed off the crossbar to the relief of Rutgers' goalkeeper, Meagan McClelland. The rebound was cleared but it was an early wake-up call for the Scarlet Knights.
They almost took that to heart in the ninth minute. Rutgers's best goal scorer during the Tourney, Riley Tiernan took a shot from deep inside the box, from a bad angle that was saved easily by FSU goalkeeper, Mia Justus.
After FSU controlled the first ten minutes possession-wise and added a few semi-dangerous chances in there, the Scarlet Knights took back some momentum. This started with another corner that did not produce a goal, but then there was a flash of hope. With eleven minutes to go, Rutgers's midfielder, Allison Lowrey took the ball from FSU All-American, Yujie Zhao. Lowrey dribbled with speed past the midfield line and threaded a through-ball ahead for Tagliaferri, who collected it and dribbled all the way into the box but was stopped by a defender.
That was all she wrote in the first half-- and it was an exciting display of soccer. These two teams were dominant in their respective conferences of the B1g Ten and ACC and the first half showed that they were equals. Even though FSU took the game to Rutgers in the first ten minutes, Rutgers was able to weather the Seminole's storm and finish the half strong, earning just as many shots-on-goal (1) as the best team in the NCAA RPI rankings.
2nd HALF Drama in Santa Clara
In the fourth minute of the second half, Florida State turned over the ball to Rutgers deep in their defensive half. The ball was passed to Amirah Ali who separated from her marker and was almost one-on-one with the keeper. She toe-poked the ball on goal but it was saved by the left hand of goalkeeper. Ali's breakaway was the best chance Rutgers had in the game to that point.
From the 50th minute to the 7oth, the game was nip-and-tuck. Florida State controlled the lion's share of possession and Rutgers did not manage to hit them on the counter, although that was their plan. The game would heat up after star midfielder Tagliaferri was subbed off for Lowrey. FSU made three subs including removing their best goal scorer Beata Olsson for Maria Algoa. Just three minutes later, nearing the seventieth minute, a good centering pass came to Zhao in the middle of Rutgers 18, but the All-American midfielder's shot went over the bar.
The hunt was on as Florida State turned their engine into third gear following this momentum swing. The Seminoles earned two straight corners and on the second, the cross came in close to goalkeeper Meagan McClelland. The senior All-Big Ten second teamer did not leave her line and the ball bounced off both teams's players until FSU's All-American midfielder Jaelin Howell stuck out her leg and poked it home.
📺: ESPNU pic.twitter.com/oBlKzTy8SD
— FSU Soccer (@FSUSoccer) December 4, 2021
The first goal of this College Cup semi-final was scored by a key player who had scored five goals during the regular season but none so far in the NCAA tournament.
In the 77th minute, Rutgers were desperate for a goal and started heating up. After the ball was taken from her, Allison Lowrey hustled to cut off a pass that was being made by her opponent and took control of the ball. When she picked it up, the Rutgers sophomore found herself on a break and took the ball all the way to FSU's goal. Frankie Tagliaferri was being covered in the box, so Lowrey ripped a hard low shot that produced a rebound. Tagliaferri looked like she would score but her shot was smothered by Florida State's goalkeeper, which stopped Rutgers from tying the game.
Two huge saves by Roque! #OneTribe
📺: ESPNU pic.twitter.com/YsMQpmouSV
— FSU Soccer (@FSUSoccer) December 4, 2021
All in all, Rutgers gave the last ten minutes all they had, but came up short. The closest chances the Knights had included Samantha Kroeger's shot over the bar with four minutes to go and a corner kick with under ten to go that landed right in Roque's front and she did not handle well resulting in a loose ball that Rutgers could not put home.
Reacting to Rutgers Semi Loss
Rutgers ultimate goal, as McClelland said, was to win the National Championship. They lost one-to-nothing to the best team in the country and there is no shame in that. 'Hindsight is twenty-twenty' as the saying goes, which means that what this sportswriter will write is both from a non-soccer player's perspective and from the crystal-clear lens of looking into the past.
Rutgers probably missed their chance to take over momentum in this game either after the tenth minute in the first half or the beginning of the second half. Florida State tried to slow down the game and keep the ball away from Rutgers. However, Allison Lowrey showed in the second half, that the other team needs to pressure a possession-based team and create turnovers when they can.
Ali was one-on-one with the goalkeeper early in the second half and had her shot saved by the goalkeeper Roque who probably stole this win for FSU. Rutgers had three shots-on-goal and corner kicks in the final 15 minutes of the game, the most dangerous of which was Tagliaferri's rebound chance that was stopped, and Roque stood tall in net when Rutgers went into survival mode after Florida took the lead.
The Rutgers Women's Soccer Team may not have reached the College Cup Final for the first time in program history, but they had a great season. There is no sugar-coating the fact that this loss hurts the seniors who will never play college soccer again. Tom Landry was not a soccer player, he was a Football coach who won multiple NFL championships and he was quoted saying this about staying positive in the face of defeat: "I've learned that something constructive comes from every defeat."
The 2021 NCAA Women's Soccer Tournament had many good teams of young women, who trained, bonded with their teammates and experienced a special competition. But most of them went home without winning the National Title. While all who came to play in this tournament, deserved a chance to compete for the College Cup, there will be only one Champion.
The moral of the story is, just because one dream ends does not mean that this defeat should be the only thing the Rutgers women's soccer team thinks about when they reflect on the whole season.
The Rutgers women's soccer program broke records and came far in 2021. They will hope to continue to build upon that success going forward and one thing is certain, there is no shortage of Grit in New Jersey.
Anthony graduated from Montclair State University, where he covered a variety of sports for three years. He co-hosts a sports-themed radio show on campus radio station, WMSC 90.3 FM, which was recently named #1 college radio station in the nation.