Soccer ‘play for the program’ Saturday for Senior Night

During her freshman year, Illinois defender Danielle Kot spent two weeks sleeping on the floor of teammate Krystin Miller’s dorm room. It was the beginning of a bond that has lasted throughout the senior co-captains’ college careers.

Saturday night, Kot and Miller, along with four other seniors, will close out their regular season careers and play what could be their last home game on Senior Night at Illinois Soccer and Track Stadium against Northwestern (6-9-3, 2-6-1 Big Ten). Miller said the bond she has shared with her classmates the past four years has been “great.”

Kot agrees: “We’re a really tight class. I mean, we lived together this year; we’ve been doing dorm dinners since we were freshmen, when we had dinner every single night together. We were neighbors in our dorm room, we were right across the hall from each other … So we’ve been around each other for what seems like forever.“

Even as they have developed close friendships off the field, this senior class — rounded out by forward Jordan Hilbrands, defensive midfielder Laura Knutson and fifth-year seniors Christina Sahly and goalkeeper Alex Kapicka — has done even more on it, leading the Illini to what could be their best regular-season record since the 2003 season.

Illinois head coach Janet Rayfield said their commitment to a higher standard goes beyond this season and has left a lasting impression on the program.

“(At) the end of last season, probably a year ago November, (the seniors) said, ‘You know we want to put this program back on track. We want to get back to the things that, when we came in as freshmen, were traditions that this program had and those things led us to be successful,’” Rayfield said.

“Things like discipline and work ethic,” she added. “They’ve done a good job of really exhibiting those things, and really making it unacceptable not to have those things if you’re gonna put on an Illinois uniform. And for that, I think we will all be thankful, not just for what they’ve done this year but for what they’ve done long-term.”

For Kot, a four-year starter and anchor of the Illinois defense, a win on Senior Night would be “huge.”

“Everyone says that everyone else is playing for the seniors,” Kot said. “But I think that, realistically, it’s the seniors playing for everyone else and like showing (them) that this is our last time that we may be on our home field, and we want to play for the program. We want to play for you guys, and we’re happy we’ve been here, and we couldn’t want anything else.”

And while No. 16 Illinois (12-4-1, 5-3-1) would love to see a win Saturday night to punctuate the seniors’ careers, there is also a more basic, less emotional reason the team would like to win. After losing to Michigan last Sunday and falling to fifth place in the Big Ten, the Illini are looking for a victory to cement their place in the NCAA Tournament and increase their chances to host the early round games.

“We’ve been consistent this season, but we really want to end it well and give the committee no reason to exclude us from the tournament,” Miller said.

Rayfield agreed with Miller’s sentiments.

“We’ve played a good schedule; we’ve got good results,” she said. “Do I think we’ve proven ourselves as a top 64 team in the country? Absolutely.

“We want to be successful this weekend for a lot of reasons, and (securing a tournament position) is certainly one of them because I think you want to put an exclamation point at the end of that resume that you talked about, and Saturday is our opportunity to do that. And you don’t want to leave an opportunity untaken.”

And even with all the added meaning and importance of Saturday’s game, Kot doesn’t feel any pressure.

“I wouldn’t say it’s pressure,” she said. “I think (making the tournament) is definitely something we’ve been thinking about — making sure that we finish the season off well and show the NCAA and other teams that we’re going to be one best teams in this NCAA Tournament.”