For the second time in the last six years, the Rutgers University women’s soccer team is headed to the College Cup, also known as the NCAA Final Four.
The Scarlet Knights punched their ticket to Santa Clara, California for the national semifinals with a thrilling penalty kick session against Arkansas, which saw Meagan McClelland of Kearny not only make a save in goal during the penalty kicks, but scored on a kick of her own, enabling the Scarlet Knights to advance to face Florida State, the nation’s No. 1-ranked squad.
Rutgers began the NCAA Tournament as the No. 5-ranked team in the country, but they’re not about to let any national ranking stand in their way.
The Scarlet Knights have a strong local flavor, not only because their standout netminder, the former Observer Female Athlete of the Year in 2018, hails from Kearny, but the Scarlet Knights’ head coach Mike O’Neill is also a Kearny native.
“To understand Kearny, you would have had to live in Kearny,” said O’Neill, who has been involved in women’s soccer at Rutgers for 22 years and the head coach now for the last six seasons. “Everyone wants to support everyone. There’s just a special bond that is there. I can’t begin to tell you all the texts and emails I’ve received since we won (over Arkansas). It’s really special. Kearny always supports Kearny. It’s always been that way. And it’s always home to me. I have such unbelievable memories of the great people from Kearny. It’s really a special place.”
And it may be the reason why O’Neill heavily recruited McClelland from her youth soccer days.
“I knew Meagan had talent, but that’s not the only reason why we recruited her,” O’Neill said. “Meagan puts the work in. She works extremely hard and she prepares for big moments like she had last week. She’s really a talented keeper. I think it makes the team more confident because they know she’s there. Her leadership is also a help. She gives us a chance to win every game.”
McClelland, a senior majoring in supply chain management, had a strong inkling that the Scarlet Knights were bound for glory this season.
“In the beginning of the season and in our scrimmages, I could see that we had an opportunity this year of going to the Final Four,” McClelland said. “I think after the summer, I was a little up and down, but after the season started, I started to play well again. I think the team also trains very well and prepares very well. A huge portion of the game is how you prepare mentally. I think we were ready for a Final Four run.”
But the Scarlet Knights needed a little bit of Lady Luck to be on their side, winning by penalty kicks in the last two rounds of the NCAA Tournament, defeating TCU in PKs, followed by the extra session shootout with Arkansas that the Scarlet Knights managed to withstand, thanks to the prowess of McClelland.
“When you get to this level, I think it’s the whole body of work that has allowed us to have a historic year,” O’Neill said. “This team had a drive that they always wanted to get better and wanted to win. It’s not just one player. It’s 28 strong (the number on the Rutgers’ roster). We always had that culture and we continue to have that. It’s a full team approach that we take every day.”
And when it comes to his netminder, O’Neill is a little tongue-tied.
“I can’t even find the words of how very proud I am of her,” O’Neill said. “When a game starts and see and hear her name being called and her hometown, it really gives me goosebumps.”
The Scarlet Knights won the recent Big 10 regular season title on their way to the Final Four.
Now, it’s the challenge that comes with facing the No. 1 seed in the tournament.
“It’s definitely exciting facing an ACC (Atlantic Coast Conference) team,” McClelland said. “They’re the Number One team overall for a reason, but I’m excited to get after it.”
McClelland is proud to be representing Kearny at the national level.
“We’re putting ‘Soccertown, USA’ all over the map,” McClelland said. “We’ll be out there ready to give it my all.”
McClelland isn’t sure whether she will return to Rutgers for the year of eligibility lost to COVID. She may put her name in the National Women’s Soccer League draft to see where she might end up. She more than likely will be drafted.
“I want to be involved in sports somehow,” McClelland said. “Having a fifth year would be nice, but I will talk about what I should do. Right now, I’m just really excited to have the opportunity to play for the College Cup. It was one of our goals and we’re fighting to the end.”
O’Neill has a national championship in his sights.
“If you’re going to do it, then you want to do it right,” O’Neill said. “We’ve taken it one game at a time and done it right. When you get to the College Cup Final Four, as one of the top four teams in the country, then anything can happen. But we’re going to win it. That’s how we’ll approach it. We have known this group is special. We set goals from the beginning and we’re two wins away.”
And two wins away from “Soccertown, USA” being represented in a national championship.
Kearny native Mike O’Neill is the head coach of the Rutgers women’s soccer team, headed to the College Cup this weekend in Santa Clara, California. Photo courtesy of Rutgers Athletic Communications.
Kearny native Meagan McClelland is one of the finest keepers in the nation. The Rutgers senior made a save in goal, then scored a goal in the penalty kick portion of last week’s game against Arkansas that put the Scarlet Knights in the Final Four College Cup. Photo courtesy of Cos Lymperopoulous.
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Jim Hague | Observer Sports Writer
Sports Writer Jim Hague was with The Observer for 20+ years — and his name is one of the most recognizable in all of sports journalism. The St. Peter’s Prep and Marquette alum kicked off his journalism career post Marquette at the Daily Record, where he remained until 1985. Following shorts stints at two other newspapers, in September 1986, he joined the now-closed Hudson Dispatch, where he remained until 1991, when its doors were finally shut.
It was during his tenure at The Dispatch that Hague’s name and reputation as one of country’s hardest-working sports reporters grew. He won several New Jersey Press Association and North Jersey Press Club Awards in that timeframe.
In 1991, he became a columnist for The Hudson Reporter chain of newspapers — and he remains with them to this day.
In addition to his work at The Observer and The Hudson Reporter, Hague is also an Associated Press stringer, where he covers Seton Hall University men’s basketball, New York Red Bulls soccer and occasionally, New Jersey Devils hockey.
He’s also doing work at The Morristown Daily Record, the very newspaper where his journalism career began.
During his career, he also worked for Dorf Feature Services, which provided material for the Star-Ledger. While there, he covered the New York Knicks and the New Jersey Nets.
Hague is also known for his announcing work — and he’s done PA work for Rutgers Newark and NJIT.
Hague is the author of the book “Braddock: The Rise of the Cinderella Man.”