Cap and Cleats

Caroline O’Neil ’23 closes out her Kenyon career with back-to-back milestones.


Caroline O'Neil runs onto the Field at Benson Bowl at the start of the NCAC tournament championship game against Denison. Photo by Graham Stokes.

Inside Lowry Center, thousands of family members gathered to celebrate the 494 seniors closing out their Kenyon careers to the sounds of eloquent remarks and brass instrumentals. Across the street, as hype songs blasted from speakers, lacrosse fans streamed into the Field at Benson Bowl to cheer on the women’s teams competing to stay alive in the NCAA Division III tournament.

“What’s the score?” Caroline O’Neil ’23, purple diploma tube in hand, asked her parents upon exiting the Commencement ceremony. The winner of the Denison vs. Franklin & Marshall match in progress would play the winner of the next game: Pomona-Pitzer or Kenyon. The senior attacker on the Owls wanted to know who she might be up against.

O’Neil, like her six senior teammates, had two hours to change out of her cap and gown and into her white and purple uniform in preparation for what could be her last Kenyon game, or a precursor to the quarterfinals.

“Right now, I'm focused on graduation and my family, friends and classmates,” O’Neil said the afternoon before the big day. “But I can tell you that as soon as graduation is finished, I'm ready to get on the field. I'm ready to tie up my cleats, and I'm ready to play.”

The psychology major is accustomed to this kind of balancing act — shifting from one priority to the other to be fully present in a course discussion (“Philosophy of Mind and Brain” was a favorite) or in a practice drill. Yet the two facets of her Kenyon experience blended together seamlessly. “To my professors, it didn’t matter if I was an athlete. It just mattered that I was in their class, and they cared about me,” said O’Neil, who often saw faculty and staff rooting for her in the stands. 

O’Neil’s appreciation for the campus community deepened after her first year at Kenyon was interrupted by the pandemic. She was only six games into the 2020 season, celebrating a win against Occidental in Los Angeles, when her teammates learned they would not be heading back to Gambier. O’Neil, who returned home to Ponte Verda, Florida, did not know when she would play again.

Now when I step on the field, I think, ‘Anything could happen. This could end at any moment.’ And that’s changed the way I play,” said O’Neil, who was a junior when she competed in her first full collegiate season. “I have more grit and tenacity in the game, because I want to be out there.”

Kenyon fell to Ponoma-Pitzer in the Commencement day match, finishing an historic run on their home turf. With a record-breaking 18 wins and a debut appearance in the national rankings, the Owls produced the best season in the program’s 50-year history. “We were legit,” added O’Neil, whose team-high 80 points and 60 goals earned her a spot in the Kenyon record book, along with All-American and regional accolades.

As O’Neil warms up for her next move — studying public health policy at Johns Hopkins — she is grateful to the people at Kenyon who inspired and supported her. Faculty members Daniel Hartnett, Paula Millin and Joel Richeimer were the reasons she chose to study Spanish, psychology and philosophy. JJ Jemison ’13 from the admissions office, where she worked as a fellow and tour guide, was a frequent presence on the sidelines. Her roommates Ellen Burbank ’23 and Maya Fair ’22 offered constant encouragement, and Coach Jess Good and her teammates helped to increase her confidence.

“I’ve become a lot more sure of myself. I know who I am and I know what I want,” said O’Neil, who is most appreciative of her class of lacrosse seniors, referring to them as “the core seven.” “We've been through it all, highs and lows. Some people didn't stay on the team. But the seven of us helped to transform the program, and I like to think that we transformed one another.”

“Now when I step on the field, I think, ‘Anything could happen. This could end at any moment.’ And that’s changed the way I play. I have more grit and tenacity in the game, because I want to be out there.”

Caroline O'Neil '23
On playing only two full seasons of lacrosse due to COVID disruptions