Soccer seniors a study in perseverance
Oct. 5, 2012
Theirs is a shared story. It's a tale of hope, of despair and of dreams coming true, and always beating at the story's heart: love. Love not just for the game but for one another. Five strangers when they met. Five lifelong friends when they depart.
They came from Montana, Idaho, Oregon and California. Four arriving in the fall of 2008, one joining the Griz soccer program in 2009. Sunday they will leave as one, never again to be split apart. Perhaps in location, but never in spirit.
On Sunday morning, when Montana faces North Dakota at South Campus Stadium, Lauren Costa, Erin Craig, Kristen Hoon, Lauren McCreath and Kate Wilkins, the 2012 seniors, will play their final regular-season home match.
It was a storybook career for none of them, and none of them would have it any other way.
"This class has seen the good, the bad and the ugly," says Costa, the lone player from the 2009 class to make it through a four-year career unscathed. "We've been through the highs and the lows, and I think it's a testament to the group's character that we've never given up. No matter what."
The picture was taken in August 2008. Montana's newcomers, all 13 of them, stood on an idyllic summer evening in the Clark-Fork River, Mt. Sentinel and the iconic M behind them, a limitless future -- in soccer, in school, in life -- unrolling as smoothly as a late-summer river in front.
But their stories would turn out to be as varied and as slippery as the underwater rocks on which they balanced at the time of the photo's taking.
Jaymie Brown, second from the left, made it through the program in four years and had her senior-day moment last October, the only one in the group to have a straight-up four-and-done career.
Nine others didn't make it to their own senior day, for one reason or another, a dropout percentage anathema to current coach Mark Plakorus, who says, "The players' experience is the ultimate priority to me. I want them to be able to look back on their time at Montana and have it always bring a smile to their face."
Vanessa Baumann, the hulking six-foot keeper in the back? Never played a minute and didn't make it to a second season. Current whereabouts: Unknown, but it's unlikely she bleeds the Griz maroon Plakorus hopes his players inherit and leave the program with.
No. 3 in front, the one Baumann's using for support? Ciara Kremer, maybe the most talented of them all. Earned honorable mention All-Big Sky Conference honors as a true freshman that fall, tore her ACL the opening day of practice in 2009, then did the same thing to the same knee in the opening week of practice in 2010 and was never the same. The class's most tragic figure.
All 13 have their own stories, their own experiences with their own unique eddies and forks, just like the river they stand in. Currents shift, the water rises and falls based on conditions outside of its control.
No. 7, Anna Pingree, is now a senior at Idaho State and one of the Big Sky's leading scorers. Hovering over her shoulder is Lauren Christian, who left the team after the 2009 season in a dispute over playing time. Holding a ball behind Christian is Donna Nunes, another keeper who never played and was gone by 2009, though with four keepers in one class it was pretty much guaranteed one (Baumann) or two (Nunes) would leave early, without collecting the memories a coach like Plakorus wants his players holding and cherishing.
Wilkins, one of the three in the picture to use a redshirt year and make it to Sunday's Senior Day, is on the far right, her confident, hand-on-hip pose belying a player who for three years never felt like she quite fit in and was always one season-ending phone call to her dad from quitting the team all together.
In retrospect McCreath, second from the right in the back, should have traded spots with Wilkins before the photo was taken. Hiding behind Blakele Bergman (career-ending knee injury) is no place for a vocal midfielder who would become one of Plakorus's team captains her junior and senior seasons.
Kristen Hoon, No. 1, front and center, the one her teammates call "Turtle," is the most miscast of them all. It would be years before she came out of that shell to become the team's starting keeper and one rainy night last November earn the appreciation of Stanford coach Paul Ratcliffe.
Thirteen are in the photo. Missing is the class's 14th member, Erin Craig, the intense, passionate one who would have likely tried to organize the first-ever game of river soccer once the photo shoot had concluded had she been present.
Craig probably should have been the player standing front and center, where Hoon was placed. Raised in Great Falls under the flag of Griz Nation, she was the one player in the group who at the time understood what a soccer uniform with Montana written across the chest truly meant.
Eligibility issues kept Craig, the fourth member of the class to make it to Senior Day, not only out of the photo but off the field that fall.
The 2009 freshman class had the look and feel of being a program changer, and even then, before the group's first practice as Grizzlies, Costa, No. 10, was holding down the center, the rock on which the group and later the entire team would rely upon as its unwavering foundation.
"Lauren came in her freshman year, and everyone knew she was going to be the team's leader for the next four years," Wilkins says today. "Everyone's role is a little bit different, and that was clearly hers, even from day one."
Six of the seven in the 2009 class would eventually become starters: No. 17, Charlotte Dugoni, and No. 14, Alyssa Nystrom, on defense with Costa, and No. 15, Britta Hjalmarsson, and No. 7, Nawal Kirts, in the midfield. No. 8, Ashley Tombelaine, would become one of her era's leading scorers.
No. 19, Megan Mavety, played one season, Kirts two and Dugoni three, before having to call it a career with foot problems. Tombelaine, Hjalmarsson and Nystrom have all experienced career setbacks, but all will make it to Senior Day, the 2013 edition.
With the team coming off a Big Sky Conference tournament appearance in 2008, expectations for 2009 and beyond were as high as they rightly should be for one of the Big Sky's most successful programs.
Costa, Craig, McCreath and Wilkins all saw their first on-field action in 2009, heady days that were expected to go down in ink on the opening pages of four presumed storybook careers.
None at the time could have foreseen what would transpire over the next 16 months, as the proud program slowly spiraled downward: Seven total wins in 2009 and 2010, player defections, a run of freak injuries that left more players on the sideline than available to play, a coach -- only the second in team history -- without a job, and a program, once the bellwether of the Big Sky Conference, suddenly on the brink of irrelevancy.
"It really tested everyone's character," Costa says. "Can you make it through tough times like that? Obviously some of us did and some of us didn't."
Wilkins did, though barely. After playing with lower-leg pain since her prep days, Wilkins, who played just 82 total minutes in four matches as a redshirt freshman in 2009, opted one week into the 2010 season to undergo year-ending surgery to correct her compartment syndrome.
She and Maddie Simmel, who underwent the same surgery on the same day, became the ironic symbols of the lost, three-win, eight-goal 2010 season. At each home game that fall, Wilkins and Simmel emerged from the locker room in wheelchairs, needing assistance to make it across the field to the team's bench. Broken-down totems of a damaged program in need of some help.
Costa and Craig, two stalwarts on a then decimated team, were on the search committee to find a new coach over the winter, following the disastrous 2010 season. The opening drew nationwide interest, and Plakorus, the associate head coach at TCU who had ties to the state, was hired in late January 2011.
Costa, both because of her leadership and the talent that made her a second-team All-Big Sky selection as a true freshman, had a secure position on the team when Plakorus held his first practice with his new team in early February. Craig and McCreath were established as well, and Hoon was one of just two holdover goalkeepers.
Wilkins' position was more tenuous. Playing four matches over three seasons and coming off surgery would leave anyone feeling dissociated, especially with the arrival of a new coach who would be looking to distance his program from the one he had inherited.
"I kind of lost my fire after the surgery, and I was honestly just planning on being part of the team because I loved being around the girls," Wilkins recalls.
"My dad is my biggest supporter, and he told me to take advantage of (the coaching change). He said, `This is your chance. Take it and prove that you were recruited to Montana for a reason and that you can play Division I soccer.'
"Mark came in, and he didn't know anything about me. He didn't care about the past or how much you'd played or your stats or anything else. He looked at everyone from a new perspective and saw what I had to offer.
"He gave me a chance when I never thought it would happen."
Though she'd been starting for two seasons, Costa, who began playing soccer at the age of four when her family was still living in Florida, started asking herself the same abject questions everyone else on the team was asking following the 2010 season.
"You go through adversity and tough times like we did, and you really start to question what you want to do with yourself," she says. "Then Mark came in and totally changed my attitude toward soccer.
"He reminded us that it should be fun and that it should still be the same game we grew up loving. He brought us back to the good old days, and that's something most of us forgot."
The memories of the successes of the 2011 team are still fresh in everyone's mind and have been extensively chronicled for posterity: The 3-0 start. Going from 8 to 27 goals scored. Doubling the team's win total. The program's first appearance at the Big Sky tournament in three years. Upsetting No. 1 Northern Colorado in the semifinals, then No. 3 Weber State in the championship match. Making the program's first NCAA tournament since 2000. And, finally, competing admirably against Stanford, the eventual national champion.
Faster than anyone could have predicted, the malaise that was hovering over the program just months earlier had been expunged, and all five of this year's seniors had career seasons.
Costa played every minute of every match in 2011. She was named first-team All-Big Sky Conference and made the all-tournament team after drilling home the match-winning penalty kicks in Montana's shootout victories over both Northern Colorado and Weber State.
And what image could possibly capture the program's turnaround better than Bruce Costa's photo right after his daughter's kick had sent the Grizzlies past Weber State and to the NCAA tournament. The one with Lauren Costa, arms outstretched, ready to take on the collective embrace of her teammates who were rushing the field to start a celebration few saw coming.
Costa, who missed three matches as a sophomore, will reach at least 74 career starts by the end of her senior season, making her one of just 10 players in program history to start that many matches.
How much of an on-the-field role has she played? About 6,174 minutes' or 103 hours' worth entering this weekend's home matches. That's four days and seven hours of shutting down opposing offensive threats and four years of helping carry the program. No wonder her knees hurt.
"I'm happy where I'm going to leave the program at the end of the year," she says. "I know it's going to be in good hands with the classes below me and the coaches we have.
"You always want to have the storybook career with multiple championships, but that's not always how life happens. That just means I'll come out of this with so many more life experiences.
"I've learned how to work with people who will drive you crazy sometimes, but at the end of the day you'd still do anything for them. And I've figured out who I want to be and who I don't want to be as a person, and almost all of that comes from the experiences I've had on and off the field and the people I've been involved with."
After scoring three goals in 2009 and 2010, Craig flourished under Plakorus's new system in 2011. She led the Big Sky in scoring with 10 goals -- four coming in a single match at Southern Utah -- and joined Costa on both the All-Big Sky Conference first team and all-tournament team.
She leads Montana in scoring her senior season as well, with four goals and one assist through 13 matches.
"Even during the interview process I could see Erin was extremely passionate, extremely focused," says Plakorus, who's known Craig since the age of eight when Plakorus and Craig's dad, Scott, both worked at Malmstrom Air Force base in Great Falls. "Griz soccer means so much to her, and that was obvious from the first day I got here.
"She gives everything she has every day, and that's all a coach can ask for. It's contagious just how passionate she is about the game and about what it means to put on a Montana jersey and represent our program."
Hoon, who saw action in just three matches as a sophomore, opened the 2011 season splitting time in goal with Kendra McMillen. She took over full-time duties midway through the season and was a key reason Montana advanced as far as it did.
Her steely play in net at the Big Sky tournament limited Northern Colorado and Weber State to two goals in 220 minutes of nervy, win-or-go-home matches, and her 10 saves against Stanford had the Cardinal's coach singling out Hoon in his post-game remarks following the teams' NCAA tournament match.
She's only gotten steadier as a senior. She's started all 13 matches this fall, making it 25 starts in a row, and has posted five shutouts, giving her eight -- and counting -- for her career.
"I saw from my first day that Kristen had the potential to be a good goalkeeper, but it was going to be up to her to come out of her shell," Plakorus said. "She's become a player that her team really believes in and in turn she gives her teammates a lot of confidence.
"A lot of that credit has to go to (goalkeeper coach) Lauren (Robertson), with what she does with our goalkeepers every day and how she trains them and what she demands of them. That's really helped Kristen gain a lot of confidence in herself and her abilities."
Like most midfielders, McCreath, who earned honorable-mention All-Big Sky and team MVP honors as a junior, doesn't have the supporting numbers (64 matches played, 51 matches started, 3,634 minutes, one goal, one assist) to put her career in the proper perspective, so Plakorus fills in the details.
"Lauren (McCreath) and Lauren (Costa) have been our captains since the time I got here," he says. "Both have been instrumental in everything we've done.
"From their leadership to their work rate to their attitude to their dedication to the team, it's hard to put into words what they've provided to the program."
Which leads to Wilkins, who, given the opportunity, rose like a phoenix under Plakorus and provides the feel-good of all Montana soccer feel-good stories.
She came off the bench when Montana opened the Plakorus era with a 4-3 double-overtime victory at Boise State the first match of the 2011 season, and she so impressed the new coach that he started her two days later in the Grizzlies' 2-1 victory over Wyoming.
And Wilkins has been starting at right back ever since, the final 21 matches her junior season and the first 13 her senior year.
"Everyone's road is a little bit different," Wilkins says. "Those first three years I wasn't sure of things and never really comfortable on or off the field. To be honest I felt like quitting after every single season, but my dad convinced me to push through it.
"I'm glad he did, because in the long run this whole experience will help me with everything in my life. It's taught me how to push through tough times. Not to toot my own horn, but I think it says a lot about my character and the character of the other seniors."
The five seniors can be called a lot of things. Leaders, champions, program changers, and all of it should come with a Destiny's Child soundtrack because they are all survivors who persevered when the easiest thing would have been to call it quits and give up on the program and leave the reclamation project to someone else.
Instead they accepted the challenges and overcame them all, and whether or not they make another Big Sky or NCAA tournament in their final season, their legacy has already been written. It's a shared one that began with hope, sank into chaos and finally ended with dreams coming true and a program pointed on a new course.
"I hope this group is able to look back and realize the change it's had in our program," Plakorus says. "They've shown their teammates that it's about how hard you work and how much you care about each other that determines the type of team you ultimately become and allows great things to happen.
"This senior class is a special group, and I'm only sorry I got to be here for just a little bit of it."
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