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S. Jersey players fuel golden era of soccer at Rutgers

There are some South Jersey soccer diehards who still found the moment - however triumphant it was - just a little unsettling when it hit the ears.

There are some South Jersey soccer diehards who still found the moment - however triumphant it was - just a little unsettling when it hit the ears.

Earlier this week, Madison Tiernan, a former Eastern great, headed in the winner in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament for Rutgers.

The goal was set up by a sharp, bending corner kick from Kenie Wright.

Yes, that Kenie Wright, the former Inquirer first-team All-South Jersey midfielder from Lenape.

The thought of Eastern and Lenape girls' soccer joining forces is akin to Spiderman fighting crime with the Green Goblin. The teams are fierce, bitter rivals, at least on the field, anyway.

But over the last three years, joining forces is exactly what many of South Jersey's top girls' soccer players have done at Rutgers.

And Friday, it landed them in final four of the NCAA Tournament. After beating Virginia in penalty kicks, Rutgers advanced to the NCAA semifinals for the first time in school history.

It's one thing to say South Jersey is a hotbed for girls' soccer. It's another to watch area players make up the core of one of the nation's best college soccer teams.

"We all have that competitive, Olympic Conference fire to us," Tiernan said earlier this week. "Putting all of our strengths together has really been a fun ride.

"Where we grew up, high school soccer is still very respected. We still joke about the rivalries we had. It's about representing something bigger than yourself, and I do think that's part of the reason we chose to represent Jersey in college."

Eight South Jersey natives are on this year's Rutgers roster.

The list includes Tiernan, Erin Smith from Shawnee, Erica Skroski and Jenna Seddon from Absegami, and four players from Lenape: Wright, Tori Prager, Katelyn Walters, and Courtney Norton.

And more are coming, including arguably the area's two best offensive players this season: Eastern's Amirah Ali and Shawnee's Lexie Palladino.

"It's just amazing watching how well they're doing right now," Palladino said. "I definitely think I made a good choice."

The reasons for the influx are layered.

It starts with the coaching staff. Mike O'Neill is in his second year as head coach at Rutgers after more than a decade as an assistant.

Five years ago, he branched out the highly successful PDA club program into South Jersey, creating PDA Arsenal. The team immediately attracted the area's top players.

Those players then formed relationships with O'Neill and Rutgers associate head coach Meg Ryan.

Tiernan said the passionate coaching staff were big influences on her decision. Playing for PDA Arsenal made Rutgers feel like a natural progression.

Then there's the notion of state pride, "and when you know you can go an hour up the Turnpike and be a part of something special and have your family watch you play, you couldn't ask for more," Tiernan said.

Finally, it doesn't hurt that Carli Lloyd - one of the world's premier soccer superstars - is a South Jersey native who went to Rutgers.

"Carli Lloyd was one of my biggest influences. When I was little, I trained with her on the Medford Strikers," Palladino said. "So I always dreamed about going to Rutgers. And then I went to PDA Arsenal with [O'Neill] and [Ryan], who are such amazing people and coaches, and it just became like a no-brainer. There was nowhere else I could see myself going."

O'Neill couldn't be happier with the recent trend. It's a sharp contrast to the last great run Rutgers made in 2008, when the Scarlet Knights advanced to the Sweet 16 without a single South Jersey player.

When he thinks of a South Jersey soccer player, O'Neill said, he thinks of the hard-nosed, intense competition the area is known for.

He thinks of girls who play for something bigger than themselves.

"They go hard, and then they're the best of friends after," O'Neill said. "And that's what you're asking for. You're asking for them to come in here, work hard and have fun and create this family that allows you to be the best that you can be. And I believe that's a quality of a South Jersey player.

"They come to play everyday. They enjoy what they're doing. They enjoy being part of something bigger than themselves.

"They made it cool to go to the state university."