Robert McCourt is building something special at Monmouth University, and the country is taking notice.
Last week, the Hawks (6-0-0) checked in at No. 5 in the NSCAA poll, the highest-ever ranking by any athletic program in Monmouth's Division I history. This week, the team is ranked No. 4 and is one of only five in the top 25 with a perfect record.
The No. 4 ranking is quite a long way from where the program was when McCourt was hired April 28, 2004. Monmouth, located in West Long Branch, N.J. -- about an hour south of New York City and only 10 minutes west of the New Jersey coast, was a Northeast Conference cellar-dweller, winning only four matches in 2003.
McCourt, who previously coached at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Va., infused himself into the local soccer scene, which was rather easy for the Kearny, N.J., native. He became a Region I US Youth Soccer Olympic Development Program coach just to get a name and face in front of potential recruits.
"In the beginning stages, I sold myself," McCourt said of his recruiting ploy. "The campus is beautiful, but the program didn't have much of a tradition. I sold them on my experience as a coach and a player and [the recruits] bought into the fact that they realized I could change things here."
During his first season as head coach, Monmouth went 7-8-3 overall, 2-4-3 in the NEC. Since that time, Monmouth, now the five-time reigning conference champs, has lost only four NEC games total in five-plus seasons. Along the way, Monmouth has played the role of giant-killer, posting wins over perennial top 25 programs North Carolina, Princeton and West Virginia in recent years. Last year's Monmouth squad finished 18-2-2, which included a penalty kick victory over Connecticut in an NCAA tournament first-round match.
While several small-school men's soccer programs have experienced sudden bursts into the national limelight, Monmouth is one of the few that's proving to have staying power. The Hawks routinely have been ranked in the top 25 since 2006.
McCourt said a key to the program's success has been identifying players, such as senior Ryan Kinne and freshman Jacob Rubinstein, who went largely unnoticed by major college programs and by tapping into a talent-heavy New Jersey soccer system. Kinne, from Naugatuck, Conn., and senior goalkeeper Bryan Meredith, from Scotch Plains, N.J., were part of the preseason Herman Trophy Watch List. Rubinstein, from Ocean Township, N.J., has scored three goals in his first six college matches, and is the team's second-leading scorer.
Nine of Monmouth's usual starting 11 are New Jersey-bred players with only Kinne and Erkko Puranen, from Finland, as the exceptions.
"When you have four [U.S. Soccer Development] Academy teams in one state that's in your backyard, it's easy to get out and see those guys," McCourt said. "Unless you're an ACC school, [recruiting] is still done on a regional basis.
"The heart and soul of our roster is Jersey, but our top guy this year is from Connecticut and our top guy last year was from England," McCourt said.
This year's "top guy" has been backing it up on the score sheet. Kinne was named the College Soccer News Player of the Week on Monday after scoring both goals in the team's 2-1 win over Seton Hall on Friday and registering an assist in the team's 3-0 victory over NJIT on Sunday. Kinne has five goals and three assists this season.
Even though Kinne was a high school All-America selection coming out of Naugatuck, he fit the mold of players McCourt has successfully courted for Monmouth.
"He was one of the guys who was middle of road in terms of recruiting," McCourt said. "[Junior midfielder] Max Hamilton was in the under-18 national team. [Junior defender] R.J. Allen was one of the top Academy players. [Junior midfielder] Cesar Blacido was voted one of the top 11 Academy players in the country. They are guys that maybe ACC schools are looking at and saying they're not so sure. But for me they are very important guys. The growth of the [Monmouth] program has been the ability to develop these players."
Kinne serves as the poster child for McCourt's statements. St. John's was the only other college program that showed significant interest in the attacking midfielder. During his freshman year at Monmouth, in a match against league rival Long Island University, he chipped in the winning goal from 18 yards out in what McCourt said was a key developmental moment.
"That's something you see guys on TV doing," McCourt said. "For him to have the poise to execute that -- and to have the balls to try it -- I thought it was a pretty big-time moment in his career and from then on he believed he could do it at this level."
Kinne has 28 career goals and 18 career assists, both numbers tying him for fourth all-time at Monmouth in a career that has even surprised Kinne.
"In my dreams I could have [seen myself having this impact in college]," he said. "It's a great feeling and I'm sure in a couple of years I'll look back and see how much more special it is."
For Kinne, his college highlight was last year's NCAA tournament victory over UConn in penalty kicks after a scoreless draw on Monmouth's home field during a Thursday afternoon, a match played at the time Kinne would have been in anatomy class.
"It was a surreal moment, not only for myself, but for the team and the whole campus," he said of the first NCAA tournament victory for the program. Adding to the moment for Kinne was the fact the Connecticut native defeated UConn, a program that did not recruit him.
Although Monmouth made an exit in the second round of the NCAA tournament, the strong team showing led to a preseason top-10 ranking by the NSCAA. Monmouth started the 2010 season with a 1-0 victory over West Virginia and has tacked on five victories since, steadily climbing in the national rankings.
"The rankings are a reward for the hard work but in the same token if they get caught up in 'We're the No. 5 team in the country,' then they take the foot off the gas on the field and learn the lesson the hard way," said McCourt. "I've been around a lot of programs and I can say the rankings could be the kiss of death, but I give my guys a lot of credit for not letting it become the kiss of death for us."
Around the nation
All banged up: Season-ending injuries are more associated with college football than college soccer, but at South Carolina, the injured reserve list has been growing by the match. In three home contests this year, the Gamecocks have lost three starting players to season-ending injuries: Eric Martinez (torn Achilles), Vance Benson (broken tibula and fibula) and Mike Lindsay (broken fibula). "In 36 years of college coaching, I have not experienced the injuries we have [had this year] so quickly, so devastatingly in the first three matches," coach Mark Berson said. "[Losing] three very significant players, experienced players, has been costly." After starting 2-1 and earning an NSCAA regional ranking, the Gamecocks have gone 1-2-1 in their last four matches, the most recent a 4-0 loss to Connecticut. The lone win during the recent four-game stretch was a 1-0 decision over Yale. The schedule does not look favorable for South Carolina, with matches at Wake Forest and North Carolina and contests against Tulsa, SMU and North Carolina State highlighting the team's action in the next three weeks.
Recruiting trail: Not all players with youth national team experience matriculate to major-college programs. Take for instance this week, as Leon Carby confirmed his commitment to High Point University. Carby, from West Hartford, Conn., has been in and out of the under-18 national team pool the past two years. Originally a 2010 prospect, Carby is now a 2011 prospect as he finishes his studies at Watkinson School, a prep school in Connecticut. South Carolina picked up a verbal commitment over the weekend from Mahamoudou Kaba, a West African-born midfielder with pro potential. Kaba is 15, yet played the 2009-2010 U.S. Soccer Development Academy season with the under-18 Vardar club. Kaba is a high school senior and will graduate two months after turning 16. His family resides in Guinea, West Africa, but he was sent to live with an aunt in Ypsilani, Mich., where he attends Lincoln High School. One reporter summarized the 6-foot-3 Kaba as "looks like a linebacker, moves like a wide receiver."
For the latest verbal commitment information, visit ESPNRISE.com.
Sheldon Shealer is the soccer editor of ESPNRISE.com, ESPN's high school sports site.