Rutgers’ Jerseyest team is also the best. Will Women’s Soccer Win an NCAA Title? | politics

On a roster almost completely filled with New Jersey natives, Maddie Brant is the outlier — and we’re far, far away. She’s from Maidstone, England, a town 30 miles southeast of London, so she had to go through some serious… Jerseyization process when she joined the Rutgers women’s soccer team.

“I was thrown in at the deep end,” Brant said, and that included learning about the Jersey Shore, the Jersey Turnpike, and most importantly the Jersey grit that defines her new team. She embraced most of it quickly, but some of our Jersey quirks remained a mystery.

For example, she couldn’t quite understand why her teammates seemed embroiled in a never-ending debate about… breakfast meat?

“What’s this row with Taylor Ham and pork roll?” Brant asked innocently, only to pressure her teammates to take sides. The lobbying took weeks. Brant, a junior with a 4.0 GPA in exercise science, was smart enough to sit it out.

Gabby Provenzano, one of the stars of this football powerhouse, told this story over the phone from Santa Clara, California – the site of this year’s College Cup – in a Jersey accent with a knowing Jersey smile, and if you remember that Haven’t already figured this out, this team on the brink of Rutgers sports history is just about as Jersey as it gets.

Rutgers has 28 players on his roster. Twenty-three are from New Jersey. Two are from Staten Island (and let’s face it, that’s close enough). One is from Pennsylvania. One is from North Carolina. And then there’s Brant, who had to get used to her new sisters giggling every time she called the round bin in the corner of their dorm room a “garbage can.”

“It was easy to see everyone coming out of the state as soon as I got here,” Brant said. “But it was great. The team’s Jersey grit style is crazy. Everyone plays with a chip on their shoulder, everyone plays for each other and that gives the team that brilliant extra advantage.”

This would be a fun story, even if Rutgers wasn’t two wins away from college’s first NCAA team title in generations. But the fact that the fifth-seeded Scarlet Knights, who play Florida’s No. 1 in the national semifinals at 7 p.m. Friday, also have a shot at history?

That Rutgers’ best team also won the . is Jersey East?

It’s perfect. For years, a single lament floated over the underperforming track and field teams in Piscataway: Imagine what Rutgers could do if the state’s best players were just at home. Well, they have in women’s soccer, and the answer is exactly what fans and alumni had hoped for.

“We are the proof,” said Amirah Ali, a Voorhees resident who has carved herself up on Rutgers women’s soccer Mount Rushmore with superstar Carli Lloyd. “We are 23 from Jersey and we are doing quite well for ourselves.”

That was not always the case. Rutgers head coach Mike O’Neill recalls that he and his predecessor, Glenn Crooks, took over the program in 2000. They only had a handful of New Jersey players on the roster, and given the talent in the state, that was a problem.

“We wanted to make it cool to stay at home,” says O’Neill, who grew up in the football breeding ground of Kearny. “The most talented kids didn’t want to come here for whatever reason — and I really don’t know what that reason is. But we felt like that was what we needed to change.”

That change did not happen overnight. O’Neill, who took over from Crooks in 2014, broke through in 2015 when the Scarlet Knights reached their first College Cup. But top recruits, many of whom played for the vigorous Players Development Academy club program that O’Neill also runs, wanted to prove they consistently had a shot at competing in the NCAA tournament.

This team is raising the bar. It has tied the 2015 team for the most wins in the program’s history, with 19, but it has smashed the scoring record with 64 goals. Ali, who was drafted in January by the Portland Thorns of the National Women’s Soccer League, is no longer the team’s only reliable goalscorer. Frankie Tagliaferri, a four-time all-Big Ten player at Penn State, transitioned to Rutgers for her final season, and Riley Tiernan, the Big Ten freshman of the year, helped turn what was always an excellent defensive program into an explosive one. to make. at.

The Scarlet Knights aren’t just happy to reach their sporting equivalent of the Final Four. After winning the college’s first regular season Big Ten Championship in any sport, they are confident they can win the national title as well.

“Going into this year, I knew we were a powerhouse and we could score a lot of goals,” said Provenzano. “From day 1, we knew where we wanted to end up with this team.”

Ali added: “The College Cup – it wasn’t an option not to make it here.”

This team already has a place in Rutgers lore. But the first team to win an NCAA championship in modern athletics history will take it to another level. A few came close, including the runners-up women’s basketball (2007) and men’s soccer teams (1991), and of course wrestling had two high-profile individual winners. No Rutgers team has put a trophy in the suitcase.

Maybe this Jersey university’s Jersey-est team can be the first to do it. It doesn’t matter if you call it Taylor Ham or pork roll, that would be a cool Jersey story.

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Steve Politi can be reached at: spoliti@njadvancemedia.com.

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