Meredith Long led the Rutgers University field hockey team to a turnaround of the program last year in her first season as head coach.
Now Long, of Ocean City, and the Scarlet Knights want more.
Rutgers' key players include several former local high school standouts: Jenn Staab and Ali Stever (Ocean City), Katie Champion (Egg Harbor Township) and freshman Elyse Broderick (Southern Regional).
Rutgers went 9-10 in 2012, the second-most wins by the Scarlet Knights in the last 14 seasons. Rutgers played eight teams that were ranked in the National Field Hockey Coaches Association Top 25. The Scarlet Knights were 5-13 in the season before Long's first full one as head coach.
Long was appointed the Rutgers head coach in January 2012 after having served as the interim coach for the last two months of the 2011 season. She joined the Rutgers staff as an assistant coach for the 2010 season.
"Last season we went out and competed with the best," Long, who also is a resident of Highland Park, near Piscataway, said Friday. "We showed we could win against them, and we gained a lot of experience.
"We lost six games by one goal, and we now have the ability to win those games. Our focus this year is to convert opportunities. To score three goals a game is our goal. If we can accomplish that, we'll get results."
The Scarlet Knights lost six seniors to graduation, but Long said the core of the team is back, including captains Staab and Sophie Wright, rising junior midfielders who started all 19 games last year. Lisa Patrone, a Washington Township graduate, led the team with eight goals last year, and Wright, of Devizes, England, added six. The team has seven incoming freshmen.
"We have a young team, but experienced and extremely talented," Long said. "Our young players should move the program forward."
The Scarlet Knights again have an ambitious schedule this year, with seven opponents who finished among the NFHCA's final Top 25 last year. That should help prepare Rutgers, a member of the Big East Conference, for its move next year into the Big 10.
Rutgers will scrimmage Fairfield University at 1 p.m. today in Piscataway. The Scarlet Knights open the season at 1 p.m. next Saturday against Boston College in Burlington, Vt.
Long hosted a team barbecue at her Ocean City home Wednesday, which was Rutgers' annual preseason day off. She and her assistants recruit heavily in southern New Jersey.
"Growing up in Ocean City, I know that South Jersey has a strong tradition in field hockey," said Long. "I always come down to watch the high school games and club games."
Long is part of that Red Raiders tradition. She played on three consecutive state Group III championship teams at Ocean City from 1997-1999. As a senior, she was The Press Female Athlete of the Year for the 2000-01 school year.
"Ali and Jenn know what it's like to win championships," Long said, "and they know what it takes to get to the next level. Katie is an outstanding athletic who's not afraid to take risks in the game. Elyse is athletic and she has what it takes. She'll develop nicely at Rutgers."
Staab plays midfielder and back, with defensive and playmaking responsibilities. She was a Big East second-team All-Star in 2012. She had two assists on Oct. 5 last fall in a 5-1 win over Georgetown University. Staab had three defensive saves in 2012, including two in a 3-1 over the University of Louisville on Oct. 12.
"We worked on basic skills in the spring and personal player skills later on," said Staab, 20, of Marmora in Upper Township. "Practices have gone great, and we have great team chemistry. We've greatly improved from my freshman year. We feel great going into the season. We have a lot of well-rounded players who have confidence in each other, and I think we can go very far."
Stever, a rising sophomore, played left back last fall and appeared in 18 games, with 15 starts. She has played left midfielder this preseason.
"I never played left back before last year," said Stever, 19, of Ocean City. "But with Meredith as coach and a former teammate in Jenn on the field, I was confident because I had my teammates to back me up. This year I'm working on thinking two to three steps ahead of the play. That's because I'm playing higher up on the field, more on attack. I'm excited. If the team keeps pushing and working hard, we should be successful.
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