Sept. 18, 2007
by Jeff Smith
Stephanie Dansereau has probably paid her dues and deserves a season of normalcy. In high school, the McLean, Va., soccer standout suffered through two surgeries her sophomore year, one during her junior campaign and a corrective procedure on her knee in her final season. Then, she chooses to attend Purdue as a walk-on, having known not one thing about the school other than her stepfather graduated from there, only then to get cut by the team. After recommitting herself to soccer and the Boilermakers, she makes the team last season, but is given the scare of her life this past spring when she could not reach brother at Virginia Tech on April 16.
It makes you wonder, after all this for a Virginian, is it really worth it to continue playing soccer in the Midwest?
The answer is yes.
"I'm proud of myself that I had the courage to come back, but I also think that I could have tried a little harder the first time as well," Dansereau said. "Now that I have the chance to played soccer at the Division I level, I'm so grateful. Soccer is all I know and I can't imagine not playing the sport."
Dansereau had to come to terms with that reality during her freshman year in 2005 when she struggled through drills during the preseason. On the first day of practice she barely made it through cone drills and two days later, she strained her calf muscle. It appeared her college soccer career was over before it ever began.
"I talked to (Purdue head coach) Rob (Klatte) and he told me I could come back in a couple of weeks and try again," Dansereau said. "I thought about it for a while, but I just didn't think that it was fair to the team for me to come back after al of them went through two-a-days."
Welcome to college, right?
Dansereau had the entire fall semester to not only get acquainted with her new surroundings, but also to decide if West Lafayette was in fact where she wanted to remain. Having been recruited by a number of schools in high school, many of the offers left the table when Dansereau had surgery. Then another. And another. And one more.
It wasn't until mother Elizabeth Dansereau-Kautt and stepfather Glenn Kautt visited West Lafayette for a reunion at Purdue that Stephanie became interested in the Boilermakers. Her mother told her that Purdue reminded her of Virginia Tech - a school five hours away from McLean at which several of her friends, club soccer teammates and her brother attended.
It would have been so easy to pack up and head home, but Purdue just seemed right.
"Purdue was definitely a different choice for me, but I always wanted to go somewhere where I didn't know a lot of people," Dansereau said. "Truthfully though, after I was let go, I thought about transferring back home. But I really liked the girls on the team and that first semester without soccer allowed me to experience the school."
Boredom set in, however, and life was no longer normal. Something was clearly missing. Soccer.
Dansereau says her parents pushed her to try again because they knew how much she loved the game. Prior to Christmas Break 2005, she attacked those cones and earned a spot on the spring roster. She maintained her conditioning throughout the summer and went into the 2006 preseason with an interesting strategy of securing her spot on the team.
"I knew going in it couldn't be worse than last preseason, so I gave it my everything," she said. "The most joy I got out of that preseason was that all the girls were pulling for me. It was great that I earned Rob's respect, but I also gained the girls' as well."
Klatte said her comeback was more of a challenge for her self-confidence than anything as she was forced to do a little soul searching after being cut.
"I think she had a lot of success coming out of high school, but just came in and wasn't prepared physically for the next level," he said. "It was definitely an eye opener for her. I told her she was good enough to play here, but she had to decide whether or not she was going to put in the effort."
Dansereau did, and in the 2006 season opener, she made her collegiate debut in a win over Western Kentucky, playing a season-high 20 minutes. In Big Ten action, she recorded shots against Iowa and Illinois in the second round of the Big Ten Tournament.
Soccer was back in her life and things finally seemed...normal.
Then came Monday, April 16, 2007.
Dansereau received a text message from her brother saying there had been a shooting on Virginia Tech's campus and he was locked down in the building behind where it took place. She found out 10 minutes after it happened, before all news outlets broke the story. Most importantly though, she found out her brother was safe and they had caught the shooter.
She continued to class, but left afterwards when she began hearing reports that the shooter had in fact not been caught. Frantically, she phoned her brother. Voicemail. She emailed her brother. No response. She called her parents and they couldn't get in touch with their youngest of four sons.
What was next? Practice.
"I walked in and started balling," Dansereau recalled. "Rob said I didn't have to practice, but I wanted to so it didn't make me think about it. It was emotional roller coaster ride that day, but my teammates were there for me. My brother ended up calling me 30 minutes after practice and said he was okay. He apologized for not answering, but said the phone lines were jammed. In a moment like that, you are just always expecting the worse."
But in the one place that Dansereau once did not know a single person, now she had a team and a coach that was there for her when she needed friends the most.
"She was very disturbed and distraught as you can imagine," Klatte said. "It brings those tragedies closer to home and the other players on the team were worried about Stephanie and her family. We were all there for her."
The incident, in which 32 people were killed in the deadliest school shooting in U.S. history, still impacts Dansereau to this day. She has tried to reconnect with high school friends with whom she has lost touch. She tries to spend more time talking with her family, including her brother, who has since graduated from VT and now resides in Chicago - just a mere two hours away from West Lafayette.
"It sounds cliché, but you can never take anything for granted, because you don't know how long you'll be here," Dansereau said.
And one thing she also will never again take for granted is soccer.
"This year is the best I have felt in a long time," she said. "I left last season in shape and came back early to work out with the girls. It felt really good to complete every test I was asked to do."
Her recommitment to the game is paying off. Dansereau, now a redshirt sophomore forward, is a key reserve on a Boilermaker team that is currently 6-1-1 and ranked 22nd in the country. Against Washington earlier this season, she "exceeded coaches' expectations," according to Klatte, and did a "fantastic job offensively and defensively" in Purdue's upset over then-No. 1 Portland on Sept. 9. The win was the biggest win in the Boilermakers' 10-year history.
"We know we can play with any team now," Dansereau said. "We hope to be playing into early December."
Luckily for Dansereau, with seven-straight Big Ten Tournament appearances and four NCAA Tournament bids, postseason play for the Boilermakers is nothing but normal.