A locker room can say a lot about a team—messy or spotless, relaxed or pumped, quiet or loud. It’s the space where countless inspirational speeches have been given, game plans outlined and equipment strapped on with more reverence than if those shin guards were actually precious family heirlooms. As Otterbein’s women’s soccer team prepared to face Ohio Wesleyan in its home opener, the most striking element in the locker room was the bass. Blaring rap music vibrated the lockers as 33 girls got game-day ready. Players filled every inch of space, on the floor lacing up ankle braces, on benches laughing and joking and at the mirror slipping on headbands and tightening braids. With everyone on top of one another, it’s hard not to think that this is a whole lot of girls squeezed into one locker room, a fact not helped by the 13 seniors making up more than a third of the team. Then again, no one’s complaining about those numbers.

The women’s soccer team at Otterbein has always been a force to be reckoned with, and with the largest senior class in history, they are looking to do great things this year. Since coming in as freshmen four years ago, these seniors have grown together as players and people. After going through so much together, they share an unusually strong bond as both teammates and friends. The experience, leadership and dedication they bring to the team are going to be important contributions as they begin the quest for Ohio Athletic Conference rings once again and look ahead to a future beyond Otterbein.

With a graduating group large enough to be a team all by itself, the senior class contains a diverse range of girls, each with their own unique and important roles on and off the field. Whether it be as starters or substitutes, transfers or injured players or captains, there are so many ways these seniors are contributing to the Cardinals’ success and making their last year an unforgettable one. Since transferring her sophomore year to Otterbein, after playing at the Division II level, senior, Abbey Miltko, couldn’t be happier. She’s closer to home, and was immediately welcomed in by the rest of her class. But now with her last season underway, reality is hitting hard.

“There is not a single game or practice that the thought of this being your last season doesn’t cross your mind,” said Miltko. “There is a lot more effort and passion in everything we do because it’s the last time we’re going to get to do it. We want to go out in the best way possible, and seeing how last year’s seniors ended their career is something that we use as a little extra motivation.”

          

Last year, seniors like Megan McCabe and Dana Strimbu lifted the team up with their talent, leadership and love of the game. After finishing third in the conference and suffering a heartbreaking early defeat in the NCAA tournament last season, this year’s seniors want to leave their mark and get back on top.

Being a Division III athlete isn’t easy. It’s hard work, late nights, long bus rides and all with none of the financial support that playing for a Division I or II team can offer. But with a program like Otterbein College Women’s Soccer (OCWS), it is easy to see a symbiotic relationship of sorts—the seniors have stuck around because of the program, and are in turn creating a program worth sticking around for.

“There’s going to be ups and downs and challenges,” said head coach Brandon Koons. “And people are going to question whether or not they want to stick with it through the tough times, but I think this team has a much stronger base to survive that kind of stuff.”

          

The Cardinals have had a strong beginning to their season, boasting a 5-3-1 record as of Oct. 1, and if the trend continues, they could be looking at yet another Ohio Athletic Conference championship, their ninth under Coach Koons.

Everyone is feeling hopeful at this point, and a lot of that positivity has to do with the seniors. Since coming in as timid freshmen, they now find themselves in the leadership role of players they used to look up to, players who left a legacy worth continuing. Now it is their voices which guide the team through both the triumphant and the rough times. Coach Koons admits that in past years, it has been the team’s tendency to crumble when challenged or when down a goal. But with such an experienced group of seniors acting as the backbone, the team is starting to pick itself up instead of giving in.

“When [senior] Natalie Ashbrook came in…she was quiet and a little hesitant at times,” said Koons. “The other night when we lost, she grabbed the entire defensive group, sat them down, and talked through all of the things that went wrong right there in the moment. That’s not something a freshman would typically do, it’s not something she would have done three years ago, so it was neat to see her take control of the moment.”

Seniors stepping up and encouraging the younger players on the team to maintain a positive, never-give-up attitude is a common theme. When looking back at their game versus Westminster, senior Polly Sellers distinctly remembers feeling the calmest she has ever felt after being scored on. Instead of panicking, she recalls feeling confident that they could make a comeback, and they did to tie the game 1-1. She and the other seniors are fostering this positive mentality, one that will hopefully continue even after they graduate.

But it’s not just chemistry on the field making this team such a powerhouse. Sellers said she is very lucky to have gotten to spend the past four years playing the sport she loves with her best friends and roommates. They’ve formed a strong bond that feels more like family than friendship.  

“There’s never a dull moment.” said Sellers. “Like when we’ll all be in the house cooking dinner, and there’s five of us in our tiny kitchen trying to make food. We’re all jamming to music and we all still have our soccer clothes on and we need to shower, and we’re all talking and joking around and having a good time. It’s nice to have that support system there…And I have connections with each senior individually, maybe on different aspects or different areas.”

It’s this strong bond of friendship that has kept 13 out of the original 16 players of the class of 2017 sticking around, no matter what their roles on the team.

Katherine McCoy, one of the seniors, knows this better than anyone. After a successful freshman season, she suffered several concussions her sophomore year and faced what was to become an eight-month recovery. The concussions weren’t just an obstacle on the field, they affected every aspect of McCoy’s life. From academics to hanging out with friends, the things that were once normal parts of her day were now a struggle. Due to her health, McCoy knew that her days on the field had to come to an end, but that hasn’t stopped her from playing a crucial role on the team as a leader and role model.

“I couldn’t imagine just sitting at my house while all my roommates were at practice,” said McCoy. “It’s been such a big part of my life that I couldn’t imagine giving it up… players who have a different role like me, like [Mikayla] Mosey, who’s also in a similar situation as me, have stuck around. Players with injuries and players who don’t get on the field as much are still sticking around, and I think that’s really special to have a different role on the team than playing 90 minutes and still wanting to be a part of it.”

With 33 girls on the team, it’s nearly impossible to give everyone the playing time they’d like. But practicing, supporting one’s teammates and being a leader or simply a friend are all just as important to the team’s success as taking the field. What’s important is finding that role and embracing it to the best of one’s ability.

If playing a sport at the collegiate level is hard, then making it to senior year is even harder. Whether it’s transferring in late or being injured, feeling overworked or not getting the playing time desired, the struggles can make players question whether the sport they love is worth it. In the case of these seniors and all the younger players they are inspiring, they know that it’s worth it. Because through all those lows, they’ve had the thrill of stepping out onto the field, finding a home, and feeling supported through the good times as well as the bad.

With the season in full swing and graduation looming nearer and nearer, the end is approaching for 13 girls who have been playing for as long as they can remember. But the lessons they’ve learned along the way and the relationships they’ve made will last much longer.

“Even though I’ve had an injury that’s put me out, in 10 years I think I’ll still come back for the alumni games and watch, and get to see all the people I haven’t seen in 10 years who have kids now,” said McCoy.  “I think I’ll just take away the memories and the friendships and the connections I’ve made.”

These seniors have accomplished a lot together, and they hope to do even more this season. With a team that has both talent and chemistry, the possibilities are endless. Looking back, it’s hard to imagine so much can change in just four short years. From timid freshmen to the leaders and role models they are now, these are women to be looked up to.

Next season there will be 13 empty jerseys to fill, the numbers on their backs less important than the players who have worked, struggled and triumphed in them. Number 11, Erica Meier. Number one, Andrea Pohlman. And so many more.

As the team prepared to play on their home turf for the first time this season, those jerseys hung on each locker, ready to be slipped on, grass-stained and soaked in sweat. Despite the approaching game, despite a long and unpredictable season to come, everyone acted like it was a normal day. That is perhaps the most striking thing about this 2016 OCWS team. They are relaxed, prepared and collected.

Their confidence is palpable, felt in every game day social media post filled with buzz and excitement. This is a seasoned group, and despite the dancing, rapping and joking, there is a deeply felt maturity; they feel like they’ve been together a long time, even with the addition of 11 freshmen. In fact, looking around it’s hard to tell the difference between the underclassmen and the upperclassmen. Any stress or nerves can be set aside because every girl knows what a strong foundation she has in the seniors, and what a fantastic support system she has holding her up.

After leaving the locker room on Sept. 14, warming up and stepping onto their home turf in uniform for the first time in 10 months, the Cardinals showed that they were prepared to make all their goals a reality this season. They beat Ohio Wesleyan University 3-0, with all three goals coming from seniors. It was a great start to what is continuing to be a great season, one the seniors are savoring every last second of.

“OCWS gives you more than you can give it,” said Miltko. “There is nothing better than being a part of this program, and I can guarantee you that it will be the best three years of my life. I wouldn’t trade this experience and these people for anything. I am so excited to see what the next couple months hold for this team, but I can promise you that we are going out with a bang.”