Brown’s Back, Better than Before

Ten months ago as the Illinois soccer team took on Wisconsin, starting defender Kassidy Brown heard a pop that would begin a new chapter in her life.

“When I went down it was just a bad cut, and at first I was freaking out cause I heard the pop,” Brown said. “My trainer came over and was like, ‘what’s going on, what happened?’ All I kept saying was I heard that stupid pop, so I knew I was going to be out for awhile.”

That “stupid pop” would end up being a torn ACL, meaning surgery only a month later, and an extensive load of physical therapy to follow.

“I told her I had no doubts that she would be back and she would be better than she was before she got injured,” head coach Janet Rayfield said. “The thing she wanted to make sure of was that she still made the most of every day that she was a freshman even though she couldn’t do it on the field.”

For the rest of the season the Lake Zurich, Ill., native would balance rehab in the morning, school and team practice in the afternoon.

Despite the pain of the injury, what hurt the most for Brown was not being able to learn and grow in her new position as a defender.

“It was disappointing because I earned a starting position as a freshman in a position that I never played in my entire life,” Brown said. “But I like to say it was a different chapter where I just sat back and watched and learned, rather than making the mistakes on the field and learning.”

Playing forward on nearly every team she played on growing up, including her club team Ela Elite and high school team Carmel Catholic, Brown was thrown into a new position in her first season of collegiate competition.

“The thing about Kass is she is just so willing to take on challenges and to do new things and, unlike a lot of people who have high expectations, she is not afraid to make mistakes,” Rayfield said.

Brown’s willingness to learn from her mistakes allowed her to quickly grasp the position change, starting 11 of the 12 games she played in last season.

“I think that’s been a unique reason why she has been able to step in, learn a position, make some mistakes, try things in practice, figure things out and come out the next day and be better because of the mistakes she made the day before,” Rayfield said. “She’s done that every day and it’s taken her a pretty short amount of time to get to the place where she is right now and that’s starting at a top-25 program.”

Brown was cleared to play in late July and played in two games with Ela Elite before returning to the team for summer practices. Coming back from her first serious soccer injury in her career was a gradual process.

“At first in two-a-days it was very very sore and stiff and I would sit out one drill here or there,” Brown said. “It was annoying to have to sit out because I seriously got to the point where I just wanted to play so bad.”

Since summer two-a-days, Brown has returned to form, regaining the starting role and becoming a cornerstone in a newly implemented defensive formation.

Brown has tallied 337 minutes, third most on the team, in the first four games of the season.

“This year, since we have less numbers, we have to cover ourselves with our speed,” Brown said.

With the Illini only playing with three defenders to allow more midfielders and forwards to attack the goal, the offense has provided 17 goals this season.

“Having such a good offense, if they can keep scoring goals, pushing it, and drilling it down the other team’s throats, then at defense we just have to use whatever is thrown back at us, figure out how to deal with it and once we get it back out to the forwards, let them do their job and put it in the goal,” Brown said.

Illinois, the No. 17-ranked team in the nation, is eyeing a second consecutive NCAA Tournament bid and a Big Ten title.

Both would mean a lot to Brown, as she was unable to partake in both tournaments last season.

“To actually be playing and starting again, it’s kind of like a fresh year,” Brown said. “It was just such an amazing accomplishment for us to make the (NCAA) Tournament last season considering we didn’t the year before. Being able to play in the NCAA Tournament would be huge.”

Injury prevention is key for a team hoping to make the NCAA tournament, and Brown looks to lead her team through a full season.

“I think if you ask everyone on the team Kass is always making sure everyone else is all right, so it was sort of interesting having her gone through the injury because Kass is pretty much the caretaker of the group, and the roles got reversed,” Rayfield said.

Brown may take to her caretaker role, as freshmen Aliina Weykamp suffered an ACL injury this season.

“I am sure as Aliina goes through all the emotions that you go through when you have something like that. Kass will certainly be there to let her know that there’s another side to all of it,“ Rayfield said.