From MAAC basement to national contender

By Brandon Scalea

Head Coach Charlie Inverso has built Rider men’s soccer into one of the MAAC’s elite programs, and has them on the brink of becoming a national power after consecutive MAAC Championship-winning seasons.

Right in the middle of an early regular season game, the Rider men’s soccer coach stepped away from his post on the sidelines and greeted a line of students standing behind his team’s bench.

By that point, the Broncs were beating La Salle, 2-1, and Charlie Inverso wanted to thank the rowdy fans behind him for their support.

The seventh-year coach would be the first to credit his players, his assistant coaches and the fans at home games for the tremendous turnaround he has created at Rider. But with two MAAC Championships in the last two seasons, and a legitimate chance at being a national contender, Inverso probably deserves at least some of the credit.

“Rider is not for everybody,” he said in a Sept. 11 interview. “We’ve been very fortunate over the years to land guys that seem like they’re a good fit here. We have a lot of guys who play with a chip on their shoulder.”

In 2011, Inverso inherited a Bronc team that was a bottom-tier program in the conference, one that hadn’t won a postseason game in seven years. By the end of his first season, Rider qualified for the MAAC Tournament and picked up a first-round victory.

And the team just has more and more success every year.

Between 2012 and 2013, Inverso produced two All-MAAC players. The last time Rider had an All-Conference player was 1999.

Inverso said that building a winning program starts with a good recruiting class, but there are challenges to this at a small school like Rider. For example, some players might be turned off by the slightly underwhelming team locker room in the Maurer Center.

“A lot of times, we go after guys who aren’t highly recruited because they tend to come in here with a little bit of an attitude,” he said. “I think, nowadays, a lot of college athletes are entitled, and a lot of them have never been told ‘No.’ We go after the complete opposite kind of player.”

Inverso added that a lot of the European players he recruits thought they were going to be offered a professional contract, but were ultimately rejected. When they come play at Rider, they work extra hard to prove themselves and it creates a great product on the field.

Arguably the best player in program history, Christian Flath, ’16, was an Inverso product from Germany. When his college career was all said and done, Flath was the first Bronc to be an All-American since 1972.

The 2015 season really put Rider on the map of college soccer. The Broncs won 12 regular season games and earned the second seed in the MAAC Tournament.

After beating Siena in the semifinal, Rider earned a ticket to face nationally-ranked Monmouth in the MAAC title game at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports in Orlando, Florida. The Broncs essentially dominated the No. 22 Hawks, who hadn’t lost a conference game all year.

The win put the Broncs in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 16 years.

In the first round, Rider played competitively against defending national champion Virginia, but was shut out, 2-0.

Coach Inverso

Last season, it didn’t take the Broncs long to turn some heads. They ripped off four straight wins to start the year, beating the likes of Temple, La Salle and powerhouse Villanova in overtime. The early success had Rider ranked as high as No. 20 in the nation.

After a 7-1-2 record in MAAC play, the team yet again earned the No. 2 seed in the conference tournament. Top-seeded Quinnipiac awaited in the championship game, but the Bobcats had to have known what was coming.

Rider proved the MAAC trophy belonged in Lawrenceville, downing the home Bobcats, 3-1, in Hamden, Connecticut.

For the second straight season, the Broncs played a first-round NCAA Tournament game on the road, this time at Vermont. Rider ultimately lost, 4-1.

Inverso said the program is proud of its success the last couple years, but he wants more. His two gleaming, blue and red MAAC Championship trophies sit in plain sight on his desk, and Inverso proudly wears his large 2015 championship ring.

“I want to get back to the NCAAs and win a game,” he said. “I want to knock off a big guy. I want to upset a big school. You see it happen a lot in men’s basketball in March Madness, when a school no one has heard of beats a big guy. Look at Florida Gulf Coast.”

Inverso was making reference to the men’s basketball team that in the 2013 NCAA Tournament upset the No. 2-seeded Georgetown Hoyas in the first round. Since then, Florida Gulf Coast has been considered an elite small-program basketball school.

But Rider’s success hasn’t gone unnoticed. In 2015, there was an average of just over 300 fans at home games at Ben Cohen Field. Over the last two seasons, it’s become commonplace to see more than 1,000 spectators at the games — a 300 percent increase in attendance.

Inverso will be the first to tell you the fans make a difference. At every home game, a large group of fraternity men stand behind the opposing goaltender and heckle him, going so far as looking him up on Facebook and finding out personal information.

“I want Rider to be a tough place to play,” Inverso said. “And to be quite honest, I don’t think I’ve seen another small school like us have the kind of fan base we have. I dream of making Rider the toughest mid-major home environment in the country.”

After blanking in-state rival Monmouth, 3-0, on Sept. 27, the Broncs currently sit at 7-2 overall and 2-0 in MAAC play for 2017. Senior goalkeeper David Pastuna already has two shutouts on the year.

“Coach Inverso is a great coach and he cares a lot about his players,” Pastuna said. “He has shaped me into a guy who cares about his teammates and who cares about their problems on and off the field as if they were my own.”

But the most important responsibility Inverso said he has is building student-athletes into decent young men who are ready to go out into the real world.

“We always say, ‘Let’s make this is a place you look forward to coming to everyday,’” Inverso said. “It hasn’t been easy. There have been bumps over the years. And the best part of this job are the relationships you make with players that’ll last for a long time.”

 

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