The Jerseyiest team at Rutgers is also the best. Will women’s soccer win an NCAA title? | Politi

On a list almost entirely filled with Native Americans, Maddie Brant is the outlier—and we’re talking way out. She hails from Maidstone, England, a town 30 miles southeast of London, so she seriously had to go through jersey process when she joined the Rutgers women’s soccer team.

“It threw me in the deep end,” Brant said, and that included getting to know the Jersey Shore, the Jersey Turnpike, and most importantly, the jersey pebbles that define her new team. She adopted most of them quickly, but some of Jersey’s quirks have remained a mystery.

For example, she couldn’t understand why her classmates were involved in an endless discussion about…breakfast meat?

“What’s that class with Taylor Hamm and ham rolls?” Brant asked, innocently, only to have her teammates pressure her to take sides. The pressure continued for weeks. Brant, a rookie with a 4.0 GPA in exercise science, was smart enough to keep it up.

One of the stars of this strong soccer team, Gabe Provenzano, was telling this story over the phone from Santa Clara, California – the site of this year’s College Cup – with a jersey accent with a jersey laugh, and if you haven’t found out yet, this team on The history of Rutgers esports looks just as jersey as it gets.

Rutgers has 28 players on its roster. Twenty-three from New Jersey. Two are from Staten Island (and let’s face it, that’s close enough). One from Pennsylvania. One from North Carolina. Then there’s Brant, who has had to get used to her new sisters laughing every time she called the round bowl in the corner of their dorm rooms a “litter box.”

“It was easy to tell everyone was from the state as soon as I got here,” Brant said. “But it was great. The Great Jersey team style is crazy. Everyone plays with a chip on their shoulder, everyone plays for each other, and that brings that extra edge to a great team.”

That would be a nice little story even if Rutgers weren’t two wins away from their first college NCAA team title in generations. But the fact that fifth-seeded Scarlett Knights, who play Florida State’s No. 1 in the National Semifinals at 7 p.m. Friday night, also have a chance in history?

That the best team at Rutgers is too jersey?

she’s perfect. For years, one lament swirled around the underperforming sports teams in Piscataway: Imagine what Rutgers would do if the state’s top players had just declared their home. Well, they did in women’s football, and the answer is exactly what fans and alumni were hoping for.

“We are the proof,” said Ameera Ali, a native of Voorhees who has carved out herself for Mount Rushmore for Rutgers women’s football alongside co-star Carli Lloyd. “There are 23 of us from Jersey, and we’re doing really well for ourselves.”

This was not always the case. Rutgers coach Mike O’Neill remembers when he and his predecessor, Glenn Crooks, took over the program in 2000. They had only a few New Jersey players on the roster, and given the talent in the state, this was a problem.

“We wanted to make it great for staying at home,” said O’Neill, who grew up in Kearney, the football stronghold. “The most talented kids weren’t looking forward to coming 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.”

This change did not happen overnight. O’Neill, who took over the program from Crocs in 2014, made headway in 2015 when the Scarlet Knights reached their first college trophy. But the top recruits, many of whom played in the strong Player Development Academy club program that O’Neill also directs, wanted proof that they had a chance to compete in the NCAA Championship.

This team raises the bar. The 2015 team doubled the number of wins in the history of the program, with 19 goals, but eliminated the scoring record with 64 goals. Ali, who was recruited by the Portland Thorns of the National Women’s Football League in January, is no longer the team’s only trusted scorer. Penn State’s four-time Big Ten player Frankie Taglievere moved to Rutgers for her final season, and Big Ten freshman Riley Tiernan helped turn what had always been an excellent defensive program into an explosive one, too.

The Vermilion Knights are not only happy to reach its equivalent in their ultimate sport. After running the table to win their first league regular season championship in any sport, they are confident they can win the national title as well.

“As we went into this year, I knew we were a strong team and that we would be able to score a lot of goals,” Provenzano said. “From day one with this team, we knew where we wanted to finish.”

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

This team already has a place in the Rutgers tradition. But the first team to win an NCAA championship in the modern history of the athletics division will take it another level. A few have come close, including the women’s basketball runner-up (2007) and the men’s soccer teams (1991), and of course wrestling has had two outstanding individual winners. No Rutgers team ever put a trophy on the case.

Perhaps the Jerseyiest team at this University of Jersey could become the first to do so. It doesn’t matter if you call it Taylor Ham or a ham roll, this will be a great jersey story.

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

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