Emotions always run high on a Senior Day, but they were cranked up an extra notch at the Oct. 11 Elon University women’s soccer team’s match.
Senior forward Nicole Dennion, former Southern Conference Player of the Year who missed last year while battling cancer, made her first appearance in two years by taking the opening kickoff in the lineup for the Phoenix. After kicking off the match, she ran to the sideline for a substitute as both teams and fans applauded.
“An indescribable level [of emotion],” said head coach Chris Neal. “It was really good having her here.”
For Dennion, going out for the kickoff with her senior classmates and best friends defenders Mel Insley and Katie Boyle had her nearly in tears after Elon’s 2-0 victory over the College of Charleston.
“I’m just incredibly grateful to put on my No. 22 jersey and do the ceremonial kickoff with my two best friends next to me,” Dennion said. “It was the greatest feeling.”
The 2013 SoCon Player of the Year was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma — bone cancer — in February 2014, so she moved back home to Ewing, New Jersey. When she was deemed cancer-free later that calendar year, she returned to Elon’s campus for the spring 2015 semester.
Though she had intentions of returning to the field, health complications prevented her from coming back to Elon’s campus this semester. Dennion knew this was her last time stepping on the pitch and understood the gravity of the moment.
“Senior Day — coming here, seeing the field, seeing everyone in their uniform — it got emotional,” she said. “It was definitely an emotional time. I think it has registered that this is the last time I’m stepping on the field.”
Dennion had planned to come back to North Carolina for Senior Day, but she was unsure whether Neal would allow her on the field. The coach tells a different story.
“She’s been telling us what she is going to do for years now,” Neal said. “We had no choice. That was her saying, ‘I’ll be back, and I’ll be on the field for Senior Day in some way, shape or form.’ Nobody’s going to tell her no.”
Dennion has watched every match available online for the past two seasons, and Neal says her presence is still felt on the team.
“She’s got free reign of this team — she can do whatever she wants,” he said. “She’s the only player in the country that can put the fear of God into a group of underclassmen from 400 miles away. She gets what she wants.”
Dennion was excited about attending Elon’s two matches last weekend — Friday’s match at the University of Delaware and Sunday’s match at the Drexel University are both 45 minutes away from Dennion’s home. Neal is glad, too. For him, there’s no denying her influence on the team and those around her.
“Just by being who she is, and by being herself, and with her situation,” Neal said. “If she doesn’t provide life-changing inspiration, you may need to get your pulse checked.”