By Andrew Wiebe
Big 12 Campus Correspondent
Five minutes until game time and Monica Dolinsky is doing her best shadow boxing routine.
Alone near midfield. She flicks the ball high up in the air and over her head, circumventing an imaginary defender. In stride, Dolinsky settles the ball with one deft touch and begins slaloming through more helpless shadows, mixing stepovers and subtle feints without ever hinting at her next move.
The pre-game habit is simply a dress routine. In the game that follows, Kansas dominates No. 18 San Diego 5-0 and Dolinsky, a senior midfielder, provides assists on two of the game's first three goals, tying and breaking the Kansas record for career assists while picking apart an overmatched Torero defense.
Afterwards, Dolinsky is nonchalant about her record-setting 25th career assist, choosing to focus more on her teammate's contributions and the fact that five different Jayhawks scored.
"I've always gotten more assists than goals," she said.
Coach Mark Francis and senior forward Shannon McCabe, Dolinsky's roommate, aren't as shy about giving the new record holder her dues.
"She's a soccer player in its purest form," McCabe said. "She is aware of everything that is happening on the field."
Francis goes out of his way to praise Dolinsky's ability to read the game and find teammates in space from anywhere on the field.
In her record-setting game, Dolinsky also set the tone early for a Kansas team looking to rebound from a disappointing weekend in Colorado. She delivered two crunching tackles in the first five minutes and kept her teammates focused.
Every committed tackle, every escape from pressure and every physical duel in the midfield seems to transfer a little bit of her confidence to the rest of her teammates. By the time Dolinsky escapes three defenders with a mix of physicality and guile, the Jayhawks lead 2-0 and are cruising behind her hard-nosed play and constant on-field chatter.
"It fires me up," Dolinsky said, "but I think it fires the team up more when they see me slide tackling and stuff like that. It gets everyone's juices flowing. I am completely opposite off the field so I think that's part of it too."
Off the field, Dolinksy describes herself as "pretty chill" and someone who would rather be lazy and sit around watching premium cable. That laid back attitude is a far cry from the player who led the Jayhawks in yellow cards the past two seasons.
Maybe that's also why it took a little time for Francis and his staff to add a meatier layer to her game to compliment the slick foot skills, a knack for finding the right pass and a thumping shot with both feet.
"Challenging for headers, winning tackles; those are things that 'Mo' has added to her game," Francis said. "She was always a great player on the ball, but we were on her during the first two years about just being a more complete player on both sides of the ball."
Those additions to her game helped Dolinsky take the step from solid performer as a freshman and sophomore to standout as a junior. She totaled eight goals and 10 assists her first two seasons but last season Dolinsky scored nine goals lfrom the midfield, tied for the team lead with McCabe, and passed out 10 assists to rack up 27 points. That total was fourth in the rugged Big 12, earning her All-Big 12 First Team and NSCAA All-Central Region First Team honors.
Three years after Dolinsky's arrival in Lawrence, Francis sees the player he envisioned when he saw her bossing youth fields in her home state of Indiana; an attacking midfielder with bite, the knack for making things happen in the final third and the ability to stay one step ahead of the action on the field.
"She just figures things out," Francis said. "She solves things on the field whereas most players have to have somebody tell them. Mo figures those things out for herself."
That soccer brain has allowed her to continue to flourish on a team with multiple new cogs. Despite the graduation of Jessica Bush and Missy Geha, the two players who partnered her in the midfield for the past three years, Dolinsky has picked up right where she left off. scoring three goals and collecting five assists while leading an injury-depleted Kansas squad to a 7-1-1 record.
"I know what coach expects of me and how he wants me to play," she said. "It took a little adjusting not playing with Missy and Jess, but overall it's getting a lot better."
So far it's been good enough to help the Jayhawks outscore their opponents by almost two goals per game. For her part, Dolinsky's goals for her senior season aren't elaborate; play flowing, attacking soccer and have as much fun as possible. If she does those two things, Kansas' second-consecutive NCAA Tournament bid should be possible.
After that comes the hard part; finding someone to fill her role in the center of the park as both sparkplug and creator.
"She is going to be a tough player to replace," Francis said. "Not just because of her ability, but I think she has done a really good job this year of just being a leader."