Former Colts Neck Star Frankie Tagliaferri Making the Most of Homecoming Season at Rutgers
For four years, one of the best players in the history of Shore Conference girls soccer made her home away from home in State College, Pa. and built a résumé worthy of the hype: Two All-Big-Ten selections, a second-team All-American selection as a senior, two Big Ten Tournament championships, two trips to the NCAA Sweet 16 and two more to the national quarterfinals while racking up five goals in NCAA Tournament play.
In every sense, Frankie Tagliaferri gave Penn State women’s soccer everything the program could have hoped for in four years and according to Tagliaferri, the program returned the favor.
As much as she felt at home for those four years, however, it was not actually home and a global pandemic only underscored that. The 2020 season was pushed back to the spring of 2021 and strict protocols throughout the last school year restricted college athletes in every sport in order to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus.
While players, coaches and staff around the country sacrificed a lot of personal freedoms to play in the spring of 2021, there were two additional freedoms players had as a result of the unusual season: a consequence-free transfer and an extra year of eligibility.
After completing four seasons at Penn State – just as she intended when she committed to the Nittany Lions out of Colts Neck High School – Tagliaferri decided to play her fifth college season at Rutgers, where her parents and younger brother have been regulars at home games with their favorite player now just a 30-minute drive from their home.
“My first thought was that I wanted to stay at Penn State,” Tagliaferri said. “Then as the pandemic went on and we were going through the season and we weren’t allowed to see our families, even when they came to home games, we couldn’t really see them afterwards and that made it really hard, especially being far away from home to begin with. In my last year, those are the people I want to spend my time with. That’s where my thinking started to change and I decided to come home.”
In finishing her college career closer to her family in Colts Neck, a funny thing has happened for Taglieferri and the Scarlet Knights. She stepped into a historic season for Rutgers and now finds herself with, perhaps, her best chance to win a NCAA championship.
Tagliaferri’s homecoming reached a high-point Sunday in Piscataway, where Rutgers (13-2, 8-0) celebrated its seniors before and during a 1-0 win over Michigan State in its regular-season home finale – the ninth straight win for the Scarlet Knights.
The lone goal came in the 62nd minute, when freshman Riley Tiernan slipped a pass to sophomore Allison Lowrey for the finish. Talented senior striker Amirah Ali – who, along with Tagliaferri, is a candidate for the MAC Hermann Trophy, awarded to the top player in the country – nearly broke the ice in the 53rd when she drilled the crossbar from 12 yards out and again in the 65th, when Michigan State goalkeeper Lauren Kozal made an acrobatic save on Ali’s attempt. Tagliaferri also uncorked a pair of dangerous shots within the 54th minute and had a breakaway in the final seconds of the match that she shot wide to the left as time ran out.
When Tagliaferri’s former team defeated Purdue, 2-1, later in the day, it guaranteed Rutgers no worse than a share of the Big Ten regular-season title – the first Big Ten championship of any kind for the Rutgers athletic program since moving into the conference eight years ago.
“When I was at Penn State for four years, all we talked about was winning not only the Big Ten championship, but a national championship too,” Tagliaferri said. “Here, it’s no different. We can win a national championship, we can win a Big Ten championship and it would be amazing to win these next two games and make history at this school by winning the Big Ten championship.”
Saturday marked the rare match in which Tagliaferri did not score, but her impact playing the attacking center midfielder spot within a relentless Rutgers attack was on full display for most of the 90 minutes at Yurcak Field. Although Rutgers finished just one goal better than the Spartans on Sunday, the Scarlet Knights enjoyed a 33-4 advantage in shots, including 10-0 in shots on goal. Tagliaferri unleashed a team-high eight shots with two of them staying on frame. She also peppered passes through the defense throughout the game that led to a number of opportunities for her teammates.
Even after the scoreless outing on Senior Day, Tagliaferri remains the Big Ten leader in scoring with 11 goals and seven assists and those 29 points ranked tied for fifth in the nation heading into the weekend. Sunday was also Tagliaferri’s 105th career game as a collegiate player, which makes her the active leader in the entire country.
While most of those 105 matches were as a Nittany Lion, Rutgers coach Mike O’Neill and his staff knew Tagliaferri well even before she transferred into the program. Rutgers was in the running when Tagliaferri was making her initial college choice out of high school and as a major program close to Tagliaferri’s home town, she spent a lot of time in Piscataway in camps and attending games at Yurcak Field.
“We were fortunate because we knew Frankie growing up and we knew what type of person she was,” O’Neill said. “We knew what type of player she was. We knew her mentality to compete and win and that’s our culture here. So, from day one, the players have welcomed her in, the same way they have welcomed our freshman class in. If you can bring good players and good people into a program, you are only going to have success, so Frankie fit right in.”
On top of the volume scoring, Tagliaferri has developed into an accurate shooter who has proven she can get off her shot. Her shot-on-goal percentage of 64.6 percent heading into Sunday ranked 20th in the country and that is with the third-most shots and shots on goal of any player in Division I women’s soccer. The only two players in the country with more shot attempts and shots on goal have just seven and five goals, respectively, compared to Tagliaferri’s 11.
The addition of Tagliaferri has had a profound impact on the Rutgers attack, which has produced 47 goals in 15 games. The 3.13 goals per game average is more than a full goal better than the next best team in the Big Ten over the course of the regular season.
“When I came in, I just wanted to gel the best way that I could,” Tagliaferri said. “Whether it was me playing a different position, whether it was playing a certain amount of minutes, I just wanted to make sure I was gelling with the girls and that they were accepting me in the best way that they could, which they absolutely did.”
Tagliaferri knew she was joining a capable team, both from her experience as an opponent while playing for Penn State and as a high-profile New Jersey recruit who considered Rutgers before ultimately picking Penn State. Once she returned to New Jersey, despite her impressive four-year résumé, Tagliaferri did not want to impose her game on her new team.
“From the second she came in, she has said, ‘Look, I’ll play anywhere,’ O’Neill said. “She wanted to help the team be successful and be part of it, so that speaks volumes of Frankie. She has taken the experience that she has had – she has learned a lot while she has been here, which is important for her at the next level – but she has also shared her experience with everyone.”
“I came from playing with girls in the midfield at Penn State that were older and now I’m playing with two sophomore starters who are teaching me so much, even though they are two or three years younger than me,” Tagliaferri said. “I have learned so much and I hope I have taught them so much too.”
Now, Tagliaferri is part of a history-making Rutgers team, which also rosters three other Shore Conference alumni in senior Shea Holland (Toms River East), senior Adriana Kuryla (Howell) and freshman goalkeeper Cameron Kennett (Toms River North). As a junior in high school, she led Colts Neck to its first and only NJSIAA Group III championship and a No. 1 ranking in New Jersey in 2015, then carried the Cougars to their only Shore Conference Tournament championship the following year.
Those lofty expectations continue to get loftier as the postseason nears. With one more win or draw in either of its last two regular-season matches, Rutgers will secure the No. 1 seed in the Big Ten Tournament, which would put the Scarlet Knights on their home pitch for as long as they last in the conference tournament.
From there, it is on to the NCAA Tournament, and as the No. 9 team in the country heading into the weekend, the Scarlet Knights have legitimate aspirations to reach the 2021 College Cup in Santa Clara, California to compete for the national championship. For its strong soccer tradition with alumni like Alexi Lalas on the men’s side and Carli Lloyd on the women’s side, the women’s program has reached the final four of the national tournament just once – in O’Neill’s second season at the helm in 2015. That Rutgers team lost to eventual champion Penn State, 2-0, in the national semifinal.
As much as Tagliaferri went to Rutgers to finish her collegiate career close to home, she would very much like to play her last college match in Santa Clara.
“I think this team has the ability to make it as far in the tournament as any team does, and I also think we are gaining more confidence every single game,” Tagliaferri said. “We bend but don’t break and with our confidence where it is, I truly think we have a great shot to win a national championship.”