CARY, N.C. – Three years ago, when Florida State’s freshmen went to the 2015 College Cup in Cary, N.C., they couldn’t help but think it would be the first trip of many.
And who could blame them?
FSU’s run to the 2015 College Cup was its fifth consecutive, and that team featured several players who had won a national title just the year before.
But those heavily favored Seminoles lost to Duke, 2-0, in a national semifinal, and then suffered early tournament exits in 2016 and 2017.
Which is probably why, as they surveyed the scene after their 1-0 win over North Carolina in Sunday’s College Cup final, all of those freshmen – now seniors – wanted to stay in the moment for as long as they could.
“I’m just trying to take it all in right now,” senior midfielder Megan Connolly said. “It’s crazy.”
Nothing will ever beat this feeling! NATIONAL CHAMPIONS!
— FSU Soccer (@FSUSoccer) December 2, 2018
FSU’s most famous player, Deyna Castellanos, is a junior. And freshmen such as Yujie Zhao and Jaelin Howell represent an undoubtedly bright future.
But make no mistake: When the Seminoles get home and place their NCAA championship trophy in its display case, the seniors’ fingerprints will be all over it.
Most obviously, it was senior Dallas Dorosy who scored the title-winning goal, one-timing a pass from Castellanos for her third goal of the NCAA tournament.
But it was also senior co-captain Natalia Kuikka, a 5-foot-6 centerback, leading the Seminoles’ defense with a forceful presence much larger than her height would suggest.
It was senior Kaycie Tillman pulling the strings in the midfield, dishing two assists during the postseason while also pestering opponents with her defense.
It was redshirt sophomore defender Malia Berkely donning jersey No. 18 – instead of her usual 17 – in honor of senior teammate Macayla Edwards, who suffered a season-ending injury earlier this season.
And it was Caroline Jeffers, a redshirt junior goalkeeper, stepping into the spotlight after an injury to usual starter Brooke Bollinger in last month’s ACC title game.
Jeffers reeled off six straight wins as a starter, kept four clean sheets and this weekend in Cary held two of the nation’s most prolific offenses scoreless.
Without Jeffers’ extended, edge-of-her-fingertips save Friday night against Stanford, the Seminoles’ semifinal against the Cardinal might have played out in a much different fashion.
“How ‘bout Caroline Jeffers?” Krikorian said. “Coming in and not having an opportunity to play a whole lot through the course of the season and stepping in and leading her team to a national championship.
Like all great stories, Florida State’s had a little bit of everything.
Plenty of joy – even before Sunday, this group had won three ACC titles – but also some heartache, too.
Even Sunday, Krikorian admitted that their loss to Duke three years ago left the Seminoles “pretty devastated.”
And defeats against Utah in the NCAA second round a year later, and to Stanford in the 2017 round of 16, were hard to swallow, too.
With three seasons in the books, those seniors who cruised to the College Cup in 2015 began to wonder if they’d ever make it back.
“We felt so bad for those two years,” Kuikka said. “Sometimes, it felt that we put so much effort in, and we’d get nothing out of it.
“And now, we put the work in and we got this. It’s amazing.”
After nearly half an hour of postgame celebrations – after singing “We are the Champions” and after making “snow angels” in the fallen confetti – the gathered Seminoles started to scatter.
Some made their way to the stands to hug friends and family. Krikorian, Dorosy and Kuikka went inside for the post-match press conference.
Connolly, though, lingered just a little while longer, taking one last look at the field.
Three years ago, she and her teammates suffered a painful defeat here at the WakeMed Soccer Park.
But as of Sunday afternoon, that bitter memory had been replaced by something far sweeter.
“When we came in as freshmen, the seniors that were here set a standard for us, and kind of engraved that standard in our head,” Connolly said. “We had that hunger.
“We pushed each other – especially the senior class pushed each other – to make sure we got it done.”