The longest Senior Night in the history of high school soccer should have taken place last night.

Would Janesville Craig’s regular-season finale against Evansville have been the segue to a run toward the WIAA state tournament? The world will never know.

A whopping 15 seniors, nearly all of them having played together since elementary school, wanted nothing more than to find out.

They put Janesville club soccer on the map by middle school, were within minutes and inches of the state tournament as sophomores and were hopeful they might take the program back there for the first time since 1999 this spring.

“It was going to be a great year,” said senior captain and midfielder Abby Membrino. “We had no idea last year that would be the last time we’d step in the bowl and that we would not get a Senior Night.

“I really love everyone on that team, from the coaches to the managers to every fan that came to watch us. I’m just sad it got ripped away from us.”

There will be no Senior Night for Gracie Weston, Savanna Dare, Membrino, Cecelia Harold, Hallie King, Sarah Gregg, Hannah Loertscher, Gwen Aldrich, Brooke Parkhurst, Hannah Dunlavy, Cassie Goswick, Katie Lane, Kerington Sauser, Abbey Schrader and Maia Rowekamp.

Many of them will, however, have roughly a decade of memories together.

Just the beginning

At first blush, Janesville’s 10U club team likely looked just like any other group of 9-year-old soccer players.

“We weren’t always good and weren’t in the highest division,” said Brooke Parkhurst, a senior midfielder and captain. “But then we got a coach, Kayla Miller, who was hard on us. She made us run and do technical work.”

Now married and the head coach at Oconomowoc High, Kayla Hottinger—who recently coached six years at Milton—said she laid out her expectations plainly to the players and coaches when she took over.

“U11, U12, that’s an awkward age in general ... and the competition drastically improves at that age,” Hottinger said. “But I had tough coaches in club and in college, and those are the coaches I respected the most. So I explained that. I was going to push them as hard as I could, but they needed to realize I would also do anything for them.

“If we lost, that’s fine. I hate to lose, but if the other team is better, so be it. But we focused on never getting outworked.”

Her young players were willing to put in that work, and in that sense, Hottinger and the team were a perfect match.

“I called them the ‘Little Yahoos’ back in the day, but I don’t think I left a match or tournament where anyone ever had a bad thing to say about them,” Hottinger said. “That’s something you can’t teach. You’re either fortunate to come across that or you’re not.

“We went from an unknown team and another team in the club to the winningest team ever in Rock Soccer. They were ranked in the state for their age group.

“We had trials and tribulations, and they had to learn quickly some of my philosophies. But to this day, that group is extremely special to me. I don’t think I’ll ever coach a group like that again.”

Hottinger eventually chose to coach closer toward the Madison area. And a few of the team’s players chose to go and play for other clubs. But a majority of the group was reunited at Craig as freshmen during the 2016-17 school year.

Making varsity

Despite their success coming up through club soccer, the Class of 2020 players took nothing for granted when they joined Craig’s program as freshmen.

“When we first started tryouts, we had no idea who would make the team, because there were a bunch of juniors and seniors,” Parkhurst said. “Then 13 freshmen made the team.”

Craig coach Bill McCabe said he first realized the caliber of the incoming freshman class when he saw them play during a summer league in Elkhorn.

It did not take long the following spring for the Cougars to announce their presence. They had won 10 matches combined in the previous three seasons. But they won their first six matches on the way to finishing with a 15-3-3 record in 2017.

Included in that was a 3-1 victory over Sun Prairie in a WIAA Division 1 regional final.

“It was scary playing against 18-year-olds when you’re 14 or 15,” Parkhurst said. “But we just went out and played.”

“Our freshman year was one of my favorite years,” Membrino said. “Everyone underestimated our team. It was fun to be underdogs.”

Membrino and Dunlavy, a center back, were each first-team all-Big Eight Conference honorees as freshmen that year.

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Craig's Abby Membrino (5), left, runs with the ball as a Verona defender follows Tuesday, April 23, 2019, at Craig High School in Janesville.

The underdogs even got to host a sectional semifinal game after Madison Memorial was also a surprise regional champion. That sectional match was suspended overnight due to lightning, and the teams played to a scoreless draw through overtime the next day. Memorial won on penalty kicks.

Knocking on the door

Craig hoped to plant itself firmly in the Big Eight title conversation in 2018. A 2-1 loss at Sun Prairie and 2-2 draw at Middleton early in the season relegated them to fighting to a third-place finish and a 13-3-4 record overall.

Dunlavy, Parkhurst and King were first-team all-conference as sophomores. King, who scored 27 goals for Parker as a freshman but transferred to Craig in the offseason, scored 21 goals for the Cougars.

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Janesville Craig's Brooke Parkhurst uses her chest to control a bouncing ball during the first half of a WIAA Division 1 sectional semifinal Wednesday, June 6, 2018, in Middleton.

A strong postseason run provided this year’s group of seniors with their favorite memory of their careers.

“When we played Middleton our sophomore year, we beat them and that was huge,” Parkhurst said. “We were all exhausted physically and emotionally.”

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Janesville Craig goalkeeper Maia Rowekamp, center, beats two Middleton players to the ball during the second half of a WIAA Division 1 sectional semifinal Wednesday, June 6, 2018, in Middleton.

Middleton had gone 8-0-1 in Big Eight play (the tie with the Cougars the lone blemish) and was the No. 1 seed in the D1 bracket. Craig was seeded fourth and returned to Middleton for that sectional semifinal.

Dunlavy took a long free kick and found the head of then-senior Kaitlyn Shanks. She headed the ball home just before halftime, and Craig’s stifling defense was enough in a 1-0 victory.

“Hannah got the ball to KJ and I just remember watching it all happen and thinking, ‘Wow, we have a chance of winning this game,’” Membrino said. “That goal put a wind in our sails. Janesville beat one of the huge Madison teams.”

The principles that were part of the Class of 2020 foundation back before they were teenagers carried through into high school, the players said.

“She (Hottinger) made us all the competitive players that we are ... and gave us the technical abilities,” said Gregg, a captain and midfielder. “She helped us believe that every game was a big deal.”

In the sectional final against second-seeded Kettle Moraine, a goal that caromed in off the post with less than four minutes left in the second overtime abruptly ended Craig’s bid to make it to state.

“We were knocking on the door of state,” Membrino said. “We were peeking around the corner.”

Hunted instead of hunters

Craig’s opponents heard those knocks on the door loud and clear by last spring. Those teams wanted to beat a Cougars squad that fancied itself a state contender once again.

Craig won six of its first eight matches but never fully settled in to the role of favorite. It lost by a goal to Sun Prairie and Madison East, and 3-0 to Madison Memorial, finishing 5-3-1 and in fifth place in the Big Eight.

“I think we were expecting it to be the same, that people would underestimate us,” said Membrino, who missed all of last season with concussions. “But teams were ready for us. I think that took us a by surprise.”

Craig lost its regional opener, 2-1, to Madison West, a team it beat 2-0 in the regular season.

McCabe said the team simply never found its rhythm.

“Everyone was gunning for us ... and we just couldn’t get in sync,” he said. “We were close in most of our games. I don’t think you could point to one reason, we just couldn’t get back to where we were.”

What could have been

The seniors, their current coach and their former coach all believed the Cougars were set up to have a long and successful season this spring.

McCabe said the players had been meeting and talking all off season about making one last run.

“I think we were all going to realize this was our last go, our last run. Everyone give everything we got and do the best we can,” Parkhurst said. “I think this season would have been really different because we were all the same page that this was our last run.

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Janesville Craig head coach Bill McCabe, center, hugs players Sarah Gregg, left, and Brooke Parkhurst after the Cougars defeated Middleton 1-0 in a WIAA Division 1 sectional semifinal match Wednesday, June 6, 2018, in Middleton.

“We didn’t get our goodbye, our goodbye statement, together and with our coaches.”

The abrupt ending to their careers will not keep McCabe from remembering just how special his senior group was—both in terms of quality and quantity.

“I think our biggest senior class prior to this was seven in one year—so I mean, wow,” McCabe said. “This is a special group, there’s no doubt.

“Every kid who has come through this program holds a special place in our hearts ... but when there’s that many, it’s obviously a little different. And that’s why it hurts so bad to see what happened.”

Gregg said the Cougars would have had lofty goals.

“We had a lot of plans,” Gregg said. “We were making videos of old clips and had meeting throughout the winter with our workouts. Everyone was super excited. We had been waiting all year. We were hoping to make a good run.”

Would a trip to state have been in the cards? No one will ever know.

But Hottinger—whose new Oconomowoc team, in a twist of fate, would have faced Craig in the regular season—would not have bet against her former group of players.

“When this group gets motivated, you don’t want to be in their way,” Hottinger said. “Give them a challenge and tell them they aren’t expected to do something. If they’re motivated and ready to work, there’s no doubt that group would have made it where they wanted.”

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