Throughout the entire season, many storylines and questions were facing the Montclair State University women’s soccer team. People wondered not only if the Red Hawks could claim back-to-back conference titles, but if they could also win the New Jersey Athletic Conference (NJAC) Championship in a normal soccer season without the coronavirus (COVID-19) playing so much of a factor in wins and losses.
So, when the Red Hawks were shut out by Rowan University (1-0) in the conference semifinal tournament on Nov. 2, it was a very bitter feeling for these players to deal with considering how much success the team was riding on heading into the postseason.
The Red Hawks had a tall task ahead of them with only four games remaining in the regular-season schedule, having to win the rest of the way to clinch a first-round bye in the NJAC Tournament. So, what did they do? Win the four games they needed to, including a 2-1 nail-biting win over Rowan on Oct. 23.
With the late-season surge, the Red Hawks clinched the second seed and the first-round bye. They had a storybook showdown at MSU Soccer Park against the Profs, a team that previously held the two seed prior to their regular season contest.
Unfortunately, Rowan scored an early goal in that contest and never looked back. And with that, the season was over. While the Red Hawks would love one more game, head coach Patrick Naughter helped put things into perspective.
“Obviously, you’re always going to want one more game, whether it’s to get in the NCAA tournament [or something else],” Naughter said. “[Likewise], if you win in the first round, you’ll want to win the second round. It’s always going to end in disappointment.”
However, on the bright side of things, the Red Hawks once again had a successful campaign. Montclair State finished with a record of 12-5 (7-2) and landed seven players on the NJAC All-Conference Team.
Just months after winning the spring 2021 NJAC Title, the Red Hawks had only five months to prepare for the fall season. The short offseason did have its advantages though, according to senior defender Laura Noseworthy, who was also a Second-Team All-Conference selection.
“Starting off, I was really confident in our preseason because I feel like everyone came back off of the NJAC win in the spring, and everyone was super excited to get back and all be together,” Noseworthy said. “I feel like that energy translated early.”
The team was led by the exciting duo of sophomore midfielder Aileen Cahill and transfer graduate student Zoë Steck, with Cahill winning NJAC Offensive Player Of the Year and Steck leading the conference in points at the end of the regular season. Both players were All-NJAC First Team selections this season.
Their strong offensive presence along with a defense Naughter called their “bread and butter” at the beginning of the season made for one of the stronger teams in the conference this season. This included a defense led by three All-NJAC performers: Noseworthy, senior captain Catherine Carnevale and freshman Emmi DeNovellis. This defense also benefitted from a goalie crew led by junior Haley Martin that has risen to the occasion plenty of times.
Still, the strongest attribute of this team was the chemistry amongst the women. Players were interchangeable as starters or bench players. It was their depth and unselfish play that enabled the team’s success.
A perfect example of how good this team’s chemistry is was when Naughter had to miss the team’s Oct. 23 game against Rowan, as his wife was in labor. A game with high seeding implications on the line relied on the Red Hawks to be on the same page at all times, especially without their head coach at the game being able to change their strategy in the most effective way possible.
However, this team once again rose through adversity. After Rowan had tied the game late in the first half, the Red Hawks played lights out defense the rest of the way as Carnevale would sneak in a goal in the 51st minute to win it.
Steck explained that it wasn’t a single person carrying this team, but a collective feeling amongst the players.
“We saw a lot of individuals get recognized, and that was awesome, but at the end of the day it was a total team effort,” Steck said. “Every single person really contributed. That is what really kept us going as a team. It was so special to see.”
The memories the Red Hawks made this year will last these seniors a lifetime. In a rematch of last season’s NJAC Championship Game against Rutgers-Camden on Sept. 18, Steck recorded a game-winner seconds into overtime.
“I’m going to remember the Rutgers-Camden overtime goal for the rest of my life,” Steck said. “The goal itself, the game, the dogpile at the end and just seeing everyone’s faces.”
This display of excellence on the field was translated perfectly and made possible by the chemistry formed in the locker room on day one. The seniors and leaders on this team clearly understood that and strived to have a tightknit bond with each and every player. Noseworthy believes this was always the team’s goal, and if anything, the most important one, too.
“As my [teammates and I] became upperclassmen, we had this idea we wanted everyone to be together, especially the underclassmen,” Noseworthy said. “We wanted them to know we were there for them. Everyone was able to talk to one another and build these bonds, which ultimately created the opportunity for us to be so close on and off the field.”
And while missing out on back-to-back conference titles stings, Steck says this 2021 women’s soccer team has plenty to be proud of.
“From start to finish we stayed true to who we were as a team,” Steck said. “A team that could fight with anyone, work harder than anyone and [a team that] fought for each other on the field. At the end of the day, regardless of how our season turned out, I think that’s what we will take away.”