By Brandon Scalea and Carlos Toro
With the spring season underway and with three MAAC Championships already under its wing, the Rider Athletics department as a whole is in uncharted territory. It is this year’s frontrunner to win one of the conference’s highest honors.
The MAAC Commissioner’s Cup is awarded at the end of every academic year to the best overall program in the conference. Through the winter sports season, Rider holds the No. 1 spot in all three categories: overall, men’s and women’s. The Broncs have never won the Overall Cup or Women’s Cup, and only once did they win the Men’s Cup, in 1998.
The cup has been the conference’s long-standing symbol of athletic excellence and it includes all 25 championship events the conference holds throughout the season. Each institution is scored for every championship it fields a varsity team. Monmouth has won the Overall Cup the last three years and the Men’s Cup the last four.
Charlie Inverso, head coach of the men’s soccer team, said it’s been great seeing the growing trend of success at Rider.
“It just goes to show that we have tremendous coaches at Rider,” he said. “It’s nice to see all our hard work paying off and it’s a good feeling being in first place [in the Commissioner’s Cup standings]. Hopefully we stay there.”
Rider’s run of unprecedented success this year started back in October with Inverso’s group winning its second-straight MAAC title. The championship and subsequent NCAA Tournament bid was a fitting cap on one of the men’s soccer team’s best years in program history.
The team started the regular season 4-0 after an impressive span that included wins over Villanova, La Salle and Temple. Rider’s dominant play helped them crack the national top 25 and earned them a Ratings Power Index (RPI) of as high as 20.
Inverso’s Broncs picked up the No. 2 seed in the MAAC Tournament and ultimately defeated top-seeded Quinnipiac in the tournament final, 3-1. In the first round of the NCAAs, Rider fell to Vermont. Senior forward Christian Flath was named First Team All-MAAC and later on became the first Bronc All-American since 1972.
Junior forward Jose Aguinaga said he believes other Rider teams have fed off the men’s soccer team’s run of success.
“On campus, our athletes feel like a community and just being a part of that is great,” he said. “I’m really happy to be part of this team that has done so well the last couple years, but also to see other Rider athletes winning, too.”
Also during the fall season, the women’s soccer and field hockey teams both earned a spot in the MAAC Championships to add to Rider’s Overall Cup points. The latter, led by long-time Head Coach Lori Hussong, has qualified for the four-team MAAC playoff 16 years in a row. The women’s soccer team has also had recent success, although it lost this year in the first round of the conference tournament. The Broncs won it all in 2014.
Senior Bethany-May Howard was named MAAC Goalkeeper of the Year for women’s soccer and freshman forward Daane Koch was named MAAC Rookie of the Year for field hockey.
The trend of winning carried over into the winter season for Rider, as well.
Heading into the final day of the MAAC Indoor Championships in New York, the men’s track and field team had some work to do. Seemingly unbeatable Monmouth, the MAAC’s Goliath at that point, seemed to be on pace for its third-straight championship. But the Bronc men used a dramatic late run to dethrone the Hawks and win their first MAAC title in program history.
Junior Tyree Adams played a big role in the win, finishing first in the pole vault en route to an award-winning performance. Head Coach Bob Hamer won MAAC Coach of the Year for the second time in his career and also won Mid-Atlantic Indoor Coach of the Year by the U.S. Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association.
“I really believe this was a significant win for the men in several ways,” Hamer said. “Most importantly, it gave them confidence they could beat the team that had been seen as unbeatable. Monmouth had won every MAAC meet since they joined the conference and this sends a message that we will not just roll over and let others be the team we want to be every year.”
Success also breeds success. The men’s track and field team’s MAAC Championship serves as motivation for the women’s team, who placed second, to do better, according to junior Sara Gardner.
“I feel like we win together,” Gardner said. “We finished second in the MAACs, but seeing the men achieve that gives the women a drive to want to be at that point, too.”
A little over a week later, the men’s swimming and diving team continued its dynasty and extended its conference title streak to six in a row. Junior Zack Molloy had another record-breaking performance and Head Coach Steve Fletcher won another Coach of the Year award.
The women were a close second behind Marist.
After being picked to finish tenth in the MAAC in the preseason poll, the women’s basketball team had a magical run in 2016-17, winning 16 conference games and earning a second seed in the MAAC Tournament. Rider lost in the tournament final to Quinnipiac, a team that eventually made a run to the NCAA Sweet 16. The Broncs accepted a bid to the Women’s National Invitational Tournament.
Greg Ott, Rider’s sports information director, stepped into his role this season after a stint at Monmouth. He saw the success the Hawks had been having in recent years and said similar qualities led to Rider’s current standing.
“I think being in first place speaks to what a successful fall we had,” he said. “I think the reason we have been so successful is the fact that we not only have the facilities to succeed, but also have excellent coaches that prepare their teams for success.”
Rider has a sizeable lead in the overall standings, with 110.25 points, with Monmouth and Quinnipiac both trailing behind in second and third place, respectively. The Hawks have 94.25 overall points while the Bobcats have 86.5 points.
Rider and Iona are neck-and-neck in the men’s standings with the Broncs leading with 46.25 points, while the Gaels have 45 points.
The Rider women also lead in their category with 64 points, with Quinnipiac (60.5 points) and Monmouth (57.75 points) in second and third, respectively.