Jenna Carosio's natural physicality as a soccer player, joined by her athleticism and intelligence, led the senior to be named the 2011-12 Big Ten Medal of Honor recipient for Illini women's athletics.
May 15, 2012
The Uncommon Achievement series encompasses five stories on the Illinois soccer senior class and their impact on the 2011 season. Each member was integral in Illinois' 17-5-2 season, which included a Big Ten Tournament Championship and the most wins in a single year in program history. Each had to overcome a variety of tests or challenges, doing so in order to help secure one of the most successful seasons in school history.
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -While classmate Julie Ewing had to wait to find out here she would play in 2011, Jenna Carosio's uncommon achievement was foreseen long before the season-opener against Gonzaga. Used mainly as a reserve midfielder with a handful of starts on defense over the previous three seasons, Carosio was called upon as a senior to fill the vacancy created at center defender by the graduation of Danielle Kot.
"For over a year, we groomed and planted seeds about that probability and prepared her for that transition and that role," Illinois head coach Janet Rayfield said. "I knew Jenna would take the challenge with excitement and pride and she was eager to have the opportunity. I also knew she had the discipline to make the most of it. She came into the season physically prepared, confident in her preparation and willing to roll up the shirt sleeves, make mistakes, get better, move on and do that quickly."
Though the accolades and honors would come in droves later, the early months of the change were frustrating for Carosio, who was playing her first sustained time on defense. Mainly an attacking player throughout her soccer career, Carosio was asked to adjust to the requirements of a central defender as quickly as possible - learning to organize the shape of the defensive unit throughout the game while stifling all attacking runs through the middle of the field.
Despite Illinois opening the season with four straight wins, Carosio saw the struggles of her defense with the inability to shut out teams consistently. Victories were secured by large margins, but it felt to Carosio that each foe could score at least one preventable goal each time the Illini took the field.
"We were winning our games and thankfully our offense was scoring a lot, but we weren't shutting teams out like we could," Carosio said. "We only shut out two non-conference teams in eight games. Everyone expected the offense to play at that explosive level, but people were skeptical about the strength of our defense, which was extremely frustrating to me."
The early-season defensive struggles reached their apex during the first two weekends of Big Ten play, with Illinois falling to 10th in the conference standings as a result of losses at Penn State and Ohio State and a two-goal, come-from-behind tie at Iowa.
Sporting an 0-2-1 mark in conference games, berths in the Big Ten and NCAA Tournaments were suddenly in jeopardy.
"I knew the defense needed to step up in Big Ten play," Carosio continued. "I think we just needed time to learn how to play as a unit with people at new positions."
Now that Illinois required a near-perfect record over the final two months of the season, Carosio and the rest of the defense began providing the lock-down performances she battled for throughout the non-conference season.
Seven straight conference victories - including five consecutive shutouts - secured the No. 2 seed in the Big Ten Tournament with a weekend left to play, improving the Illini to 13-4-1 overall and 7-2-1 in conference action in the process.
"It took longer than we wanted it to, but we were able to come through," Carosio said. "Posting those shutouts [of Purdue, Michigan State, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Northwestern] proved to everyone what we were capable of as a unit."
An eighth victory after Carosio and her fellow graduating classmates were honored during Senior Night on Oct. 29 ended Michigan's hunt for the postseason and secured the longest winning streak in program history - sending the Illini into the Big Ten Tournament as a popular pick to take down Penn State in the championship.
While it required heightened performances from every Illini to win the final eight Big Ten games, Carosio's teammates on defense and her head coach recognize the senior's integral part in the 2011 squad setting the program record for most single-season victories, with 17.
"Jenna was an absolute rock next to me on defense," said freshman outside back Stephanie Pouse, who started the final 15 games of the year. "Her style of play and mine are very similar in that we are both very physical defenders, so I constantly had questions to ask that she always had the answers for. It was amazing to me that she would be going up to win a ball out of the air over two opposing players and still have the vision to be shouting out assignments to the rest of us."
Carosio's ability to complete her own duties while helping those around her was evident in the development of Pouse, who was called upon to start unexpectedly and was able to compete consistently in part because of the guidance offered by Carosio and Ewing. With less than one year of game experience directing her, Carosio was successfully spearheading the defense and guiding the development of players learning alongside her.
"Any time I missed a tackle I knew Jenna would be there to clean up the play and have my back," Pouse said. "Whenever I wasn't sure what I needed to do or where I should be, Jenna was always there."
Her final performance at Illinois Soccer Stadium highlighted the growth of Carosio as a player and the defense as a unit. After securing the Big Ten Tournament Title with a 2-1 overtime victory vs. No. 11 Penn State, Illinois was selected to host defending National Champion Notre Dame in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament.
After 90 minutes of physical play on an unseasonably warm Nov. 13, Carosio had her final shutout of the year, a 1-0 victory over the Irish that stands as the only time in Division-I women's soccer history a reigning champ was sent out of the tournament in the first round. Notre Dame - which averaged more than 19 attempts per game, including an average of eight on-target, was held by the Illini defense to just nine shots, with only three needing to be turned aside by Illinois goalie Steph Panozzo.
Ultimately, at about 5-foot-6 - undersized for a center defender - Carosio's ability to control the game when it is being played completely in front of her proved to be the difference-maker in what some thought would be a difficult year of transition for the defense.
This vision, tenacity and soccer intelligence helped the Illini to nine shutouts and the second Big Ten Tournament Title in team history. It produced a pair of game-winning goals in the last regular season games to secure the No. 2 Big Ten Tournament seed. It led to Carosio being named Big Ten Defender of the Year and All-Big Ten and NSCAA All-Midwest Region First Team - all before she took home the coveted Big Ten Medal of Honor.
"With the knowledge she gained in those first three years [in the midfield] and her natural ability to see things when the game is in front of her, Jenna was able to step into a brand new role as a senior and lead this team defensively," Rayfield said. "She went from role player to key player, from filling holes to being the player we could not replace."