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Kennedy Kieneker is the unsung hero of Arizona soccer

“Our midfield would not be the same without her”

Photo courtesy Arizona Athletics

When Kennedy Kieneker wraps up her Arizona soccer career in November, she will exit the program with a storied legacy, albeit one that is tough to measure.

Her name won’t appear near the top of the all-time goals or assists lists, and she certainly won’t be the all-time shutouts leader like fellow senior Lainey Burdett.

Kieneker, a midfielder, has notched just three goals and six assists in four seasons with the Wildcats.

Yet, she has started nearly every game throughout what has been a historic stretch for the program, because a stat sheet cannot accurately depict her impact on the game.

You know what can? A mere substitution.

“She’s one of those players that when you take out of the game, you end up going, ‘what’s changed? Why is the other team on the front foot? Why is this happening? Why is that happening?’” said Arizona coach Tony Amato.

“She doesn’t always show up on the stat sheet but you notice when she’s not (on the field), and that’s why she doesn’t come out very often. When she does, it’s a quick breather and she’s back in. With those players, you miss them more when they’re not in there, and I’m sure we’ll feel that next year when she’s off to greener pastures.”

Simply, Kieneker is the backbone of Arizona’s midfield. She does the dirty work that every team needs to be successful — connecting passes, covering ground and, best of all, winning nearly every ball in the air, using her head as a “weapon,” as one teammate described it.

“She is amazing,” said UA forward Brynn Moga. “Our midfield would not be the same without her and it’s going to stink that she’s (leaving), but she wins every ball and it’s crazy.”

Amato used the word “consistency” to describe Arizona’s senior class and Kieneker is the epitome of it.

No matter what the situation is — whether it’s a running drill in the spring or the final minute of an NCAA Tournament game — Amato said he can always count on her to give it her all.

“That is really important as a coach,” he stressed. “The worst thing is when you don’t know what a player is going to do on that day.”

That reliability is how Kieneker was able to claim a starting role as a freshman and hold on to it ever since.

“She is the hardest worker ever and always wins everything,” said freshman midfielder Iliana Hocking. “You can tell she really cares about this program and wants to go out with a bang. She gives it her all in practice, off the field, on the field. She’s the best. She’s a leader by example.

“You see Kennedy working hard and you never want to let her down.”

Kieneker is adaptable, too. UA’s style of play has changed seismically since she joined the program — they played very direct early in her career, but now tend to be more possession-oriented — but she has always found a way to contribute and improve.

In turn, her teams have experienced tremendous, and sometimes even unprecedented, success.

In 2015, Kieneker’s freshman year, Arizona made its second-ever Sweet Sixteen appearance. Two years later, it won a program-record seven Pac-12 games.

Now, Kieneker’s senior class is on the verge of becoming just the second in school history to reach the NCAA Tournament three times.

“It’s funny,” Amato said, “when she got here, we had flip-throws and a lot of athleticism, so we were utilizing that and she fit right into that. And then as we have evolved, she’s evolved with that. That’s what we ask our players to do. We play different formations, different styles. Every team is different and she has been consistent.”

Indeed, Kieneker scored exactly one goal in each of her first three seasons, a mark she is still trying to reach in 2018.

“We don’t tell her not to score,” Amato joked, “it’s just she ... distributes from a deeper position on the field. But because we ask her to do that, that means other players, if she gets them the ball, need to shine.”

It takes a certain amount of selflessness to embrace that role the way Kieneker has, but she is someone who finds joy in others’ success.

“It’s hard,” she said when asked to describe her legacy, “because you don’t get stats for passing and all that stuff, but I just want to make other people look good.”

Four games plus the NCAA Tournament (assuming Arizona makes it) are all that’s left in Kieneker’s career and she’s not sure what awaits her after graduation.

“That’s the big question,” she said.

Sure, she would love to continue playing soccer, but she knows that might not be feasible since pro opportunities aren’t exactly brimming — or lucrative — for female players.

Thus, she is considering pursuing another longtime passion of hers: becoming a makeup artist.

After all, she just wants to make other people look good.

“If you’re down on yourself, she picks you right back up,” Moga said. “She never says a bad word. She’s always there.”