Ewing, NJ... There is symmetry between this year’s senior class of players and The College of New Jersey women’s soccer program. This season will mark the last group of players that were born during the lifespan of the program’s history. Seniors Annie McCarthy (Brick, NJ/Brick Memorial), Jaclyn Greco (Bridgewater, NJ/Bridgewater-Raritan), and Maria Grady (Sewell, NJ/Our Lady of Mercy Academy) are a few of the players whose birthdates fall in 1990, the same year women’s soccer was born at TCNJ.
It’s hard to believe that a storied program so rich in history and checkered with success did not even exist before 1990. When you consider the resume of achievements that bears three NCAA Division III national titles, 21 consecutive NCAA tournament appearances, and 14 New Jersey Athletic Conference titles, you would presume soccer balls have been kicked into nets by women at Lions’ Stadium for generations. Not so. In fact, only the names Bush, Clinton, and Obama have held the office of president since head coach Joe Russo held his first practice in August of 1990.
“There have certainly been some changes over the years,” noted Russo, who is now just 12 wins shy of his 400th career victory with a record of 388-45-26. “Women’s soccer is much stronger as a whole and I would like to think that our program has continued to evolve. When we first started, we had a very direct style of play that relied on athleticism. Now, we are more possessive and more tactical with some directness sprinkled in.
“Something that has not changed, however, is our expectations. We set out to win a national championship every year and that has been our goal each pre-season from 1990 right through 2011.”
Russo and his Lions did exactly that in 1993, 1994, and 2000. After posting a 2-0 triumph over Iona College in their first official game, they went 12-3-1 in their inaugural season. Russo led the Lions to 17-2-1, 16-1-4 marks before winning back-to-back titles in ’93 and ’94, going a combined 42-2-3. In 2000, TCNJ went 23-1 to claim its third national crown. In all, the Lions have also competed in six national title games and made 12 final four appearances, the last in 2009 in San Antonio, TX.
Becoming a national powerhouse can be a steady, yet challenging climb. Staying at the top – as many successful coaches will agree – is even more difficult. With the growth and popularity of women’s soccer continuing to gain momentum, the pool of gifted players has deepened, meaning the number of programs boasting talent has expanded. Winning a national championship has never been easy, but the path to and through the NCAA tournament has progressed into a more daunting task than ever before.
“Women’s soccer has just exploded, and with that, you’re going to have more and more programs that are competitive and tough to beat,” explained Russo. “You see it in recruiting as well. There used to be maybe two or three real big recruiting events each year that you had to attend. Now there is an event every weekend, 52 weeks out of the year.
“Today’s players are bigger, faster, and stronger. We used to recruit the best athletes, and now that players are more seasoned, we look for the combination of great athletes who are also very good soccer players.”
In addition to having a long a tradition of success, a key to cultivating recruits that produce in a Lions’ uniform is that Russo and/or his assistant Bob Turner see each player that ultimately enters the program. The coaching staff, which is now complemented by local standout Kylee Rossi and Paul Blodgett, does rely on its alumni network to learn about prospective players. But before they show up on campus, the player has been assessed in how they can contribute to a team seeking a fourth national championship and beyond.
A strong recruiting class entering this season will join a group of returning players littered with talent and experience. After registering an 18-3 record and another NJAC title a season ago, the Lions are poised to make another run at greatness in 2011. Russo and coach Turner, who have been on the sidelines for all 388 victories in the program’s history, like the make-up of their squad and their focus on getting back to Blossom Soccer Stadium in San Antonio –the site of the 2011 NCAA Division III Women’s Soccer Championship.
“We are fortunate to have such great leadership on this team,” said Russo, who also served as the men’s soccer assistant coach for the Lions from 1981-1987. “The coaches are limited by rule as to what we can do with the players in the off-season, so it’s vital to a program to have veteran players who lead by example and make sure everyone is getting their work done. As we often say, what we do in the present predicts what we do in the future. If we push and play up to our abilities, we may have some great things ahead of us.”
Everything is said to be bigger in Texas. What 22nd birthday gift would be bigger and better than a fourth national championship to be shared by the senior class and TCNJ’s women’s soccer program.