Cauzillo's thick Michigan accent and self-described "old-school dance moves" may be a bit out of place in Lawrence, but her flashy footwork, brilliant passing and laser-like precision accuracy with her shot endeared her to her Kansas teammates immediately.
"Off the field I just goof around," said Cauzillo, a Northville, Mich., native, "but when it comes to game time I turn it back on." The results since her arrival have been tremendous. The Jayhawks have spent the entire season ranked in the Top 25, cracked the top 10 for the first time ever, and are a legitimate Final Four contender. Cauzillo is a big reason why.
This is her story.
IN NEED OF A CHANGE
Despite being recruited out of high school by KU coach Mark Francis, Cauzillo headed for the east coast and West Virginia. At the time, she said, she had no idea what good things were brewing in Lawrence because the national soccer media largely had ignored KU's rising program.
"I didn't even return his phone calls," she said a bit sheepishly. "I just thought it was Kansas and cornfields and I wasn't really interested." West Virginia was a high-profile program that was used to being in the Top 25, and the tradition appealed to Cauzillo. As a freshman she was an everyday starter, scored three goals, dished out two assists and played in the Sweet 16 with the Mountaineers.
Despite that success, she wasn't happy. Cauzillo refuses to badmouth the WVU program, saying only that it wasn't the right fit for her and she needed to make a change. Fortunately for Cauzillo, Francis was still interested in coaching her. A late spring campus visit sealed the deal.
"I took a visit and just really liked the team and the coaches and the whole atmosphere and the campus and everything about it," she said.
Cauzillo loved her new team, but she wasn't totally sure where she'd fit in on the field. All she knew was nine starters returned from a Sweet 16 team – one being All-America forward Caroline Smith. Ironically, it was Smith who knew exactly what Cauzillo would add to the Jayhawks in 2004. She'd seen Cauzillo at an Olympic Developmental Program camp two years earlier and was wowed by her all-around game.
"She's one of the few people I actually remember," Smith said of ODP camp. "She was just all over the place, so technical, just running forever. She was awesome."
And she was about to give Kansas something it lacked in previous seasons – a lethal scoring threat from the outside.
FINDING HER GROOVE
After winning a national championship with the Michigan Hawks, her club team of eight years, and finishing as the national runner-up with her W-League semi-pro women's team during the summer, Cauzillo came to KU with plenty of buzz surrounding her.
The summertime success alerted everyone that she was no ordinary player. That was evident right away as she scored goals in three of Kansas' first five games from her midfield position, including the game-winning goals in back-to-back outings against Wisconsin-Milwaukee and St. Louis University.
"She's great in the middle," said sophomore forward Jessica Kilpatrick. "She's so confident with the ball. Me and her have connected a ton. It's really comfortable for me to have her in there because she's always up there in the box and in the mix of things."
Francis said Cauzillo's of the same mindset as Caroline Smith when it comes to how she reads the game. Cauzillo is always using her passing to put her teammates in the right position to score. She'll change directions with stop-on-a-dime tornado turns or split two defenders with a no-look heel-flick pass to an open teammate. They're moves you didn't see from KU on the soccer field in 2003, but as Cauzillo has done them her teammates have tried it too, and been successful.
"She has a very good soccer brain and a soccer mind," Francis said. "She reads the game very well and I think some of that is rubbing off on the others. It's kind of like in chess, she's one step ahead of the move before."
More than her footwork off the dribble, Cauzillo's greatest asset to the Jayhawks has been her ability to consistently shoot on-target. She's the biggest scoring threat KU has ever had on freekicks, but she can be equally frightening from anywhere on the field. It takes a lucky set of fingertips to divert her shots. She can fire a shot on a perfectly straight line if she has to, or beat somebody off the dribble. Cauzillo can loft a soft-touch flick just over a goalkeeper's hands that nosedives under the crossbar. She can unleash one of the most wicked bending balls in all of college soccer – one that looks like it's going straight at a goalkeeper's face but suddenly curves like a fishhook to the nearest post.
"Nicole probably has the best technique of striking the ball out of everybody on the team," Francis said, "and she's the most consistent at hitting the target area from that kind of distance. She works hard on those things and obviously it's paying off for her."
Ultimately, Cauzillo's arrival has helped take Kansas to another level. The Jayhawks are no longer just a threat to the Big 12 Conference's traditional powers like Nebraska, Texas and Texas A&M. They are big-time players on the national scene.
"She just brought a ton of confidence," said sophomore Holly Gault, a 2003 Freshman All-America defender. "She was on a really successful team last year and because of the confidence she has from playing at that level, you know she's going to work as hard as she can every day and we feed off that."
Francis vouches for her work ethic. Cauzillo was a three-sport standout at Northville High as a school-record-holder in track and a Division I basketball recruit in addition to her soccer talent. No matter the sport or the activity, he said she does things the right way.
"'Cauz' is kind of a perfectionist," Francis said. "She wants to do everything perfectly and she wants to do it the right way. She brings that kind of professionalism and adds that professionalism to our team. She has very high expectations for herself and I think she has high expectations of the people she plays with, and I think that's adding a little something to our program."
Then there's the "accent" thing and the dancing, as well as the dozens of other random reasons her teammates enjoy having her around.
"She's the funniest girl, really likeable," Kilpatrick said. "She just meshes so well with everyone, and it's awesome to have another good character on the team."
Cauzillo agreed, and said she has no question she made the right choice in transferring to Kansas. She's on a winning team that's receiving respect nationally – both characteristics she had at West Virginia – but at Kansas she has found the happiness and acceptance she was searching for both on and off the field.
"It's been the right choice," she said. "The team and I get along real well and it's been that way since day one. The coaching staff's really awesome and they're real helpful. They're just really there for the team. Even when I feel like I'm playing bad they always have an encouraging word."
"I think we can go as far as we want to this year," she added. "I think we choose how far we go. We just have to come out and play every game. I think we can beat any team in the country."
This story originally published in the October issue of Jayhawk Illustrated magazine.
Cauzillo joins freshman defender Afton Sauer one the All-Big 12 Newcomer team. Seniors Meghan Miller and Amy Geha join junior Caroline Smith and sophomore Holly Gault on the All-Big 12 first team. For Miller and Smith it was their second time on the first team, while Geha and Gault, who was second team All-Big 12 last season as a freshman, garnered their first selection. On the second team, senior forward Rachel Gilfillan and Sauer were both selected for the first time in their careers.
Just days after clinching its first Big 12 Championship, the University of Kansas soccer team now sets its sights on post season success as the Jayhawk travel to San Antonio, Texas, to participate in the Big 12 Soccer Tournament. The top-seeded Jayhawks will square off against No. 8 seed Iowa State on Wednesday at 11 a.m. at Blossom Soccer Stadium.