As Kenzie Tillitt walked off Prentup Field for one of the final times earlier this week, she couldn't help getting overcome by a few waves of emotion.
The senior from the University of Colorado soccer team made certain to savor the moment. And the view.
"I don't know if there is soccer for me after (college)," Tillitt said. "To have a senior season like this is any soccer player's dream. You can't wake up and train in a better place. There's been a lot of tears. There's been a lot of heartache. But there's also been tons of happiness. All of it combined just means a lot."
Tillitt and the other five seniors on the CU's roster will be honored Friday when the No. 22-ranked Buffs host No. 23 Utah in the regular-season finale at Prentup Field.
Among that group of seniors, only Tillitt and Mikaela Kraus have spent their entire careers at CU. And both represent the sort of selfless dedication any coach would gladly welcome into their program.
When they were recruited by then-new head coach Danny Sanchez, CU was trying to fight its way back into relevance on the national stage. The Buffs returned to the NCAA tournament when they were freshmen and sophomores, then endured the struggles of last year's unexpected last-place finish in the Pac-12 Conference.
Neither Kraus nor Tillitt have enjoyed a leading role on the pitch for the Buffs, yet both have played integral roles in CU's dramatic turnaround this season. Tillitt was recruited as a goalkeeper and served two seasons as the Buffs' backup. She moved to defense as a junior and has often come off the bench this season as a forward.
Entering this season, Kraus had appeared in 49 games, largely as a reserve midfielder. Yet when injuries robbed the Buffs of starting defenders Joss Orejel and Kahlia Hogg down the stretch this year, Sanchez turned to Kraus to fill a starting void along the back line.
"You have to keep in mind...we're a top-25 program. So these are players who could go to hundreds of other programs and be impact players," Sanchez said. "They came here for the right reasons. I feel with both of them it would have been easy to hang them up. It would have been easy to make excuses or whatever. They just said, 'Well I'm just going to work harder and do all I can do and hopefully get an opportunity.' I'm just real pleased they had opportunities their senior year."
The Buffs enter Friday's battle against the Utes with an opportunity to still earn a share of the Pac-12 crown, needing a victory combined with a loss by No. 3 Stanford at No. 21 Cal and a loss or tie by No. 5 USC against No. 18 UCLA.
While there have been numerous heroes and contributions across the roster in a season certain to end in a return to the NCAA Tournament, the meshing of a senior class that includes four players that transferred to CU at different points over the past three seasons — Hogg (Florida State), Morgan Stanton (Santa Clara), Danica Evans (Portland), and Emily Bruder (North Carolina) — has been as pivotal as anything the Buffs have accomplished on the field.
Should the Buffs defeat the Utes, there is a reasonable chance they will get to play at Prentup again next week as a host site for the NCAA Tournament. CU will learn its fate when the tourney field is announced Monday.
"We get along really well on and off the field," Kraus said. "Off the field we're all best friends, and I think if you're best friends off the field, that helps on the field and vice versa as well. I'm trying to look at all the positives we've been through, and there's a lot of happy moments. I'm sure I'll shed some tears on Friday."