WATERLOO — Senior leadership is hard to beat.

This year’s University of Northern Iowa women’s soccer team is a case in point. Led by five seniors — defenders Marianne Gagne, Allison Bitter, Kelsey Hansen and Haley Kerns along with forward Sarah Brandt — the Panthers have risen to new heights.

UNI, which set a school record for wins (12) and wins in the Missouri Valley Conference (4) hosts Illinois State at 1 p.m. today in a first-round MVC Tournament game at the Cedar Valley Soccer Complex.

“That group has stuck together and is kind of the glue of our team,” UNI head coach Bruce Erickson said of his senior class.

It starts up front with Brandt, who needs one more assist to match Charlotte Jones for the most assists in a single season. She and junior Brynell Yount are 1-2 in the UNI record book for points in a season with 19 and 20, respectively, and Brandt is third all-time in goals scored with 15.

“It has been an awesome (senior season),” Brandt said Thursday after UNI clinched a home tournament game with a 2-0 win over Indiana State. “Us seniors have such high expectations for each other. Every time we go into practice or a game we do it with high energy and a positive attitude.

“I think collectively we want this season to end the way we want and that is on top.”

Defensively, Gagne, Bitter and Hansen start while Kerns averages more than 40 minutes a game off the bench. Collectively, they have been critical for a team that has allowed just 10 goals in 17 games with a program record nine shutouts, including one over Illinois State.

“I think it starts in the middle with Mari and Bitter,” Erickson said. “Those guys don’t get flustered. A lot of what we do starts with those two because they are in the middle of the back, kind of like the quarterbacks of the defense.”

Hansen, from Cedar Falls, has appeared in every game since joining the Panthers as a freshman in 2014, a string of 73 straight games.

“Those guys, Kelsey and Haley have been solid,” Erickson said. “Their experience and having been in big games, having played in so many tight contests ... that experience probably got us through some games and not conceding anything.”

Hansen said the nine shutouts are the product of a mindset the team carried into the season.

“I think the experience helps and that we’ve been together for four years,” Hansen said. “Coming into this season, we had shutout mentality where every game we were going to try to get a shutout..

“Every game our utmost priority is to protect our goalkeeper, protect our goal.”

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Sports Reporter

Sports reporter for The Courier

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