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Rutgers-Camden soccer in its first-ever Final Four

Two of its shots had already bounced off the goalpost before the Rutgers-Camden men's soccer team scored first in an NCAA Division III tournament game two years ago.

Goalie Mike Randall stops a shot during the team's practice on Monday.
Goalie Mike Randall stops a shot during the team's practice on Monday.Read moreDAVID M WARREN / Staff Photographer

Two of its shots had already bounced off the goalpost before the Rutgers-Camden men's soccer team scored first in an NCAA Division III tournament game two years ago.

But with 14 minutes left, SUNY-Oneonta tied and then beat Rutgers-Camden in double overtime. The winners ran onto the field and piled up on a nearby NCCA logo on a hill, celebrating advancing from the Elite Eight to the Final Four in Texas.

The Rutgers-Camden players collapsed in grief. They hugged. Some sobbed.

"From that moment on, it was our staff's mission to get back to that game . . . and punch our ticket to the Final Four," Rutgers-Camden head coach Tim Oswald said last week during practice, recalling the 2011 game in Canton, N.Y.

On Friday, Rutgers-Camden will play in the school's first Final Four game, facing off in San Antonio, Texas, against Loras College of Dubuque, Iowa - quite a feat for a hardscrabble program that until 2001 did not have a home field and that is one of 18 sports that share a tiny $1.3 million budget.

"Our goal in the beginning of the year was to be No. 1 in the country. We're two games away," said senior midfielder Mitch Grotti, a 2011 All-American.

As the Rutgers University Division I teams up the turnpike enjoy prominence - the women's basketball team has reached the Final Four twice and the national championship once, in 2007 - the Rutgers-Camden men's soccer team is quietly amassing its own legacy.

Rutgers-Camden, which under NCAA rules cannot give athletic scholarships, has reached the Division III national tournament four times since Oswald took over the program, including the Scarlet Raptors' 2-1 win over Montclair State University this year that moved them into the Final Four.

The team has been ranked among the nation's top Division III programs over the last five years.

Oswald, a Division III standout at Elizabethtown (Pa.) College from 1997 to 2000, is now attracting talent from beyond South Jersey, including players who either played at Division I programs or were recruited by them, in part because of the team's success.

"This is the most talented Division III program that I've ever been associated with," said Don Norton, a Rutgers-Camden assistant coach who also coached at Richard Stockton College when that team reached the Final Four in 1999.

If the team wins the national championship, it will join the women's softball team, which won a title in 2006, and Tim VanLiew, who won back-to-back national javelin championships in 2012 and 2013.

Oswald is a Philadelphia native who grew up in Mayfair and graduated from Father Judge High School. Now a Deptford resident, he works full time as a guidance counselor at Ridley Middle School in Ridley Park.

In 2006, he arrived at Rutgers-Camden from Arcadia University, where as an assistant he helped its Division III team consistently earn a national ranking.

By then, Rutgers-Camden had completed a $6 million facility to be used by its soccer and softball teams, and the community living near the Benjamin Franklin Bridge. Norton recalled that the men's soccer team used to play at Camden County College and at a field in Cinnaminson.

As Oswald set out to recruit players in the early years, he had to fight to overcome negative perceptions of the city.

"Early on, we had people we would just call, they were quality players, and we'd say, 'Come visit Rutgers-Camden,' and they would respond, 'I'm not coming to school in Camden,' " Oswald said.

Now, he said, players want to be part of a "championship-type quality team."

"You sell the Rutgers degree. You sell the program and the success we've had," he said.

Oswald has coached several Division III All-Americans, including Mike Ryan, a quick-footed All-American at Cherokee High School.

This year, Rutgers-Camden was ranked No. 2 nationally in the final regular-season Top 25 poll and No. 3 in the National Soccer Coaches Association of America poll.

The team has a two-year unbeaten streak of 36 games, the longest currently in Division III soccer. The team last lost to Montclair State in September 2012.

"We put in the work and became a family," said Ryan, who earned All-American status at Rutgers last season.

Ryan arrived after the team's devastating 2011 loss, but the defeat has lingered in the mind of VanLiew, who was an all-American goalie for that team and is now an assistant coach.

"It was something that none of us could have expected with the way we were playing that day and the ride that we were on," said VanLiew, a Deptford High graduate. "But to be so close was an eye-opener."

Before the November game against Montclair State, Oswald showed the team video clips of speeches by Eric Thomas, a former NFL player and motivational speaker.

"It's a 90-minute game. It's 11 vs. 11, with one ball on the field," Oswald said.

Keegan Balle, a senior from Naperville, Ill., who transferred to Rutgers-Camden after playing at Bradley University in Illinois and Syracuse University, both Division I programs, asked Oswald if he could address the team before the game against Montclair State.

As the team gathered in a circle, Balle told them this was the best team he had ever played on, and they needed to get after it that day.

Then Balle was overcome with emotion, and his teammates cried, too.

After this game, it was the Scarlet Raptors who ran across the field, over to the fans, alumni, and parents on the sideline.


Division III national rank: 2 (in the 2013 final regular season Top 25); 3 (in the National Soccer Coaches Association of America poll)

Unbeaten streak: 36 games (longest current streak in the nation)

NCAA Tournament appearances: 4 (2008, 2011, 2012, and 2013)

NCCA Final Four appearance: 1 (2013)

NCCA Elite Eight appearances: 2 (2011, 2013)