By Tim Morris
Leadership has come naturally to Rachael Ivanicki.
In high school, she was a captain of all her athletic teams (soccer and cross-country).
“I’m pretty vocal,” she said.
While she cherishes those high school honors, they are dwarfed by what the Monmouth University women’s soccer team did in naming her the Hawks’ overall captain for the 2016 season — her last in West Long Branch.
“This is more important,” she said. “It means I have the respect of my teammates.
“[Being captain] makes you work harder — that’s most important.”
Ivanicki, a Colts Neck High School graduate, hopes to lead the Hawks to where they haven’t been since 2013 — back into the NCAA Tournament.
“I want this year to be perfect,” she said.
Monmouth went 13-3-2 last fall and won the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) title for the third consecutive year. But the Hawks did not win the conference tournament, which cost them a trip to the NCAA Tourament.
Last year’s semifinals exit in the MAAC Tournament still stings and has the Hawks setting the bar high.
“We have a lot of talent,” Ivanicki said. “We hope to go far. Our focus is on winning the conference championship and getting to the [NCAA] tournament.
“Everyone is working their hardest. The mindset is that we all want to win.”
The MAAC coaches made Monmouth the preseason pick to win the conference.
Ivanicki’s role besides leadership is scoring. Last year, the forward deposited nine goals and had three assists. Her nine goals were second on the team and her 21 points were third. After the season, she was named to the All-MAAC Second Team.
Scoring should be a strength of the Hawks with Ivanicki, last year’s MAAC Offensive Player of the Year Alexis McTamney and Rachel Ross among the returnees.
“We’re building chemistry,” Ivanicki said. “We work well together. It’s not about one person. When one scores, we all score.”
The former Cougar considers herself a finisher on the field, someone who who seems to always be in the right place at the right time. She may not have the strongest shot on the field, but she knows where to place the ball when opportunity knocks.
Being named the Monmouth captain is a testament to how far Ivanicki has come as a player and leader since graduating from Colts Neck.
“When I was in high school, I was just an athletic player,” she said.
She was rudely introduced to the world of Division I soccer the first practice at Bryant College, where she played there for two years before transferring to Monmouth.
“I wasn’t sure what to expect,” she said of college soccer. “The game is so much faster and everyone is really competitive.”
That first year may have been a rude awakening for Ivanicki, but she responded. She became more than an athlete playing soccer. She became an all-around player who learned all the nuances of the sport to the point she became one of the best players in the MAAC last year and, she added, she’s still learning. She’s still looking for ways to improve her game to help the team. It’s part of what she brings to the team as a leader by example.
Ivanicki also had to overcome injury on her way to becoming a formidable college player. She missed all of the 2014 season at Monmouth because of an ACL injury. As much as it hurt to not be out there on the field, it helped make her transition to Monmouth easier.
“I got to know everyone and watch them play,” she said. “I learned the way the coaches wanted to play.”
On Aug. 22, the Hawks played their home opener on Hess Field on the Great Lawn under the lights hosting Lehigh University. The field is very special to Ivanicki.
“I love playing on the Great Lawn,” she said. “There are so many people around when we play.”
On Sept. 9 and 11, Monmouth has home matches with Loyola University Maryland (7 p.m.) and Princeton University (10 a.m.) that will be televised on ESPN3/WatchESPN.
Monmouth doesn’t begin its MAAC schedule until Sept. 17, when the Hawks play the first of three straight road games. They play Marist College Sept. 17, Manhattan College Sept. 24 and Fairleigh Dickinson University Sept. 28.
The Hawks’ first home conference game is Oct. 1 against St. Peter’s University at 7 p.m.