The ceremonial cutting of the nets is an annual tradition in college basketball, but 20 years ago in November Stockton’s men’s soccer team borrowed from it to celebrate their Division III national championship.
“That was one of my goals, to cut a net down,” said Jeff Haines, who was the head coach at the time. “My thought was they do it in college basketball, why not do it in soccer?”
Since a soccer net has a lot more loops than a basketball net, Haines let alumni and others associated with the program get in on the act after the Ospreys had captured the school’s first and only national title with a 3-2 win over Redlands in the final at Messiah University in Grantham, Pa. on November 24, 2001.
“It was a line of people to midfield waiting to cut the net,” Greg Ruttler, one of the seniors on the team, recalled. “It was awesome. We all have a piece of that hanging in our house somewhere.”
Ruttler, the current head coach of the team, led the Ospreys in scoring that season with 14 goals and 11 assists. Jeff Moore, who would later go on to play for the MetroStars in MLS for a season in 2002, led the team in assists with 19.
“We had the right pieces, the right mix of guys from 10 seniors down to the freshmen that season,” Moore said. “We needed everybody.”
The win over Redlands in the final capped a 25-1-1 season that started with a 3-1 win over Redlands in an opening weekend tournament in Colorado. Their only loss of the season came to NJAC rival Rowan early in the season and the draw came in the national semifinal to Ohio Wesleyan that ended in a Stockton shootout victory.
Stockton would end up getting revenge on Rowan in the NJAC semifinal and beat them again in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Winning the NJAC title was key too since at large bids were hard to come by then and Stockton had somehow finished in third place in the league with an identical 8-1 conference record to Rowan and Kean. Stockton beat Jersey City in the final after they upset Kean.
“To finish in third place and be 19-1 overall, 8-1 in your league with Kean and Rowan being as good as they were both that set us up for a strong run,” Ruttler said. “And obviously we ended up winning it.”
NJAC teams making it to the final weekend of the season was a common occurrence at the time. Stockton’s Final Four appearance in 2001 marked the sixth straight year an NJAC team was in it and the 10th time over a 12-year period.
Rowan made the final in 2000, losing to Messiah; the College of New Jersey won it in 1996 and lost in the final a year later and Kean (1992) and Rowan (1990) both won titles in the early ‘90s.
Stockton’s title win holds up 20 years later as the last Division III men’s title won by a public university. Messiah has won it 10 times since 2002, including in 2013 when they beat NJAC school Rutgers-Camden in the final.
“We’re the last public school in Division III to win it,” Moore said. “It’s been all private schools since then.”
Moore, who logged 1,482 for the MetroStars in 2002, recalled the first meeting of the 2001 season and the seniors writing down their goal to win their last college soccer game. The Ospreys were coming off an ECAC championship after failing to make the NCAA Tournament.
“We put it down on paper and we made it happen,” Moore said. “I would have never got to where I did in soccer without having had that kind of year, I don’t think because we got big time recognition for that. That helped me get some locks and do a couple things after college.”
Moore and Ruttler both received All-American honors in their final season and Mike McAlarnen, who scored the game-winner in the final and John Epley both received All-American recognition the following season.
“Moore and Ruttler and McAlarnen and Epley, they were the All-Americans but like Jeff said we certainly needed everybody on that team that year, we really did,” Haines said. “Out of the 25 that dressed, 23 played in the final and I beg you to find another school out there that plays 23 players in a championship.”
The roster was exclusively players from New Jersey, too.
Moore and Ruttler were both South Jersey high school stars — at Triton and Edgewood (now Winslow Township) — when Haines recruited them and Tim Lenahan was still the head coach. Haines took over as head coach in 1998 after Lenahan, who retired earlier this year as head coach at Northwestern, left to take a job at Lafayette.
“When I recruited Greg and Jeff, that’s when the process started,” said Haines, who is the Associate Athletic Director at Stockton now. “They were two guys I thought we could build a program around and obviously I made the right choice in recruiting them.”
The Ospreys made it all the way to the Final Four in 1999, but weren’t able to make it further until two years later when they experienced a moment that 20 years later still bonds the team.
“We have a group chat with all the other guys,” Ruttler said. “There’s weeks that go by where there won’t be any chatter and then all of a sudden my phone won’t stop buzzing because everybody is going back and forth with the banter.”
Ruttler’s phone buzzed plenty last month with the 20th anniversary falling the day before Thanksgiving.
“Just that bond that we still all have all these years later is awesome,” Ruttler said.
While it may seem like the bond was permanently forged by winning the national championship, Haines maintains it’s really the other way around.
“The reason why we won it was because of how close we already were,” Haines said. “So look, I got a ring, I got a tattoo, I got a piece of the net and it’s all because of these guys. I’ll have that stuff forever.”