Senior Day reminded fans of UB Bulls women's soccer how exceptional this graduating class has been.
Senior starters Jackie Hall, Kristin Markiewicz and Kassidy Kidd led the Bulls to a 3-0 win over the Central Michigan Chippewas, pushing UB's winning streak to three games and setting them up nicely for a tough conclusion to the Mid-American Conference on the road.
"You always want to come out and win on your home field in general, but to do it for your last home game for the season and on Senior Day is awesome," said Hall, a center back, captain and reigning MAC Defensive Player of the Year. "Not just to get a win, but to completely dominate a game was really exciting."
While the 2014 senior class was the first to take the Bulls to the NCAA Tournament, the 2015 group was forced to cope with early offensive struggles in the face of higher expectations. Strong leadership and versatility from the senior class steadied the squad, however, and now the Bulls may be in a position to host a MAC quarterfinal.
"It's easy to look back on the success of last year, and our girls had to hear that non-stop," said head coach Shawn Burke, who often deflects questions that tie the 2015 team to last year's run. "We had a lots of ups and downs early on, but a testament to this year's senior class is that they got the girls clicking at the right time.
Next weekend, the Bulls pay visits to Miami (OH) and Ball State, the East and West division leaders, respectively, but entering the road trip with a 5-2-1 MAC record gives UB ample confidence.
"We have a lot of momentum and we're getting better every single game," he added, noting the 10 goals the Bulls have scored over their last three matches. "That's our seniors taking the role -- they understand what it takes at this point; they learned that last year -- and they're really taking the reins."
Hall and Markiewicz on leadership: One constant for the UB women has been a strong, physical defense that communicates well and almost flawlessly keeps its shape. Much of the credit for that is due to Hall, the most vocal of the back four, and Markiewicz, who seamlessly stepped in to the other center back role when Burke shook up his lineup.
The duties of the two seniors reach far beyond defending, as Hall and Markiewicz take some responsibility for the team's chemistry and mentality.
"We've had struggles, and that's on me and Kristin [Markiewicz] to make sure we're holding our team accountable, but we also have to stay positive," said Hall. "We've been through hard times and last year we've seen some great stuff, so we know what can happen if a team stays together."
The term "accountability" may sound cliche, as it's emphasized from team to team, but Markiewicz does a nice job of clarifying its meaning to the Bulls.
"We talk all the time about not looking for somebody else to do it, and to be accountable for your role on the team, regardless of how many minutes you get, if it's winning a 50-50 ball or a clearance, anything like that, you just have to do your part to contribute."
The four-year starter from Erie, Pa. thrived in a holding midfield role in 2014 and 12 games into her senior campaign, but Markiewicz didn't see Burke's decision to move her to center back as anything negative or a particularly tough adjustment.
"It was an easy transition," she admitted. "[Andrea] Niper is used to playing that holding mid spot and she's so good in the air that it was a good transition for her. Sliding into center back, that's where I played my first two years here and basically my whole life I've been back there. Especially going in next to Jackie, it was really easy for us to communicate with each other and figure it all out."
Sunday's clean sheet was the Bulls' first in five matches, and Hall and Markiewicz cut out most chances long before they even reached keeper Laura Dougall.
More praise for Kidd: Burke is quick to credit the infusion of energy and skill of Kidd, whose move to forward coincided with the Bulls' scoring outburst. Although the Bulls' leading scorer didn't find the back of the net on Sunday, her first-touch flick to Julia Benati bought the midfielder enough time to pick out the right side-netting for a 1-0 lead.
"The performances Kassidy is putting in up top -- we're so dangerous and teams don't know how to defend us," Burke said. "She didn't score today, but had the assist and opened things up for everyone around her."
Like Markiewicz, Kidd showed her leadership by accepting a position change for the betterment of the team.
"The team has been different because of it," Burke explained. "I think the girls see that and they feed off that.
Senior montage: As the Bulls walked off the field at halftime, a nicely produced video montage of the Bulls seniors reflecting on their favorite moments on the pitch rolled on the scoreboard. Leading off was redshirt-senior McKenzie White, who thanked the coaching staff for giving her time in the win over Northern Illinois last week, her first action since her freshman year. The keeper battled through severe medical issues that threatened her ability to walk, much less play Division I futbol.
"That kid is so inspiring -- what she's been through the last three years and the way she's fought back, I was ecstatic to get her some time because she's deserved it," Burke said after the CMU match.
"She fought all that time -- she's our No. 3 keeper right now, but she's never down about it. She's probably one of the happiest kids on our sideline., and that's a great example for the girls who aren't getting time right now, about perseverance and showing through."
N'Dea Johnson, a reserve senior forward, saw action in both halves -- 17 minutes in total -- in front of the home crowd on Senior Day. After seeing her career plagued by injuries in 2013 and '14, Johnson has fought for and earned time in her final campaign.
Email Ben Tsujimoto, who drank his Iced Capp too fast, at firstname.lastname@example.org