Hannah and Josh Rodgers were close in all the ways that matter. Even in age, they were separated by only 14 months.
When Hannah was 3 — officially too young to play in a youth soccer league — she played on Josh’s team. How? Their mother was the coach.
Moms get it done.
In time Josh drifted from soccer, migrating to football and track in junior high and at Normal Community High School. Hannah kept playing, well enough to earn a scholarship to Illinois State.
Friday night, they played together again. That’s how it felt for ISU’s No. 2, a senior forward, and those in attendance on “Local Heroes Night” at the Redbirds’ Adelaide Street Field.
On a night designed to honor Army Ranger Sgt. Josh Rodgers, 22, who in April was killed in action in Afghanistan, his younger sister channeled him.
Throughout this season she has kept him close, wearing an armband and headband in his memory. Friday he was closer still in a nonconference match against Missouri-Kansas City.
Shortly after entering a scoreless game in the first half, Hannah took a pass from teammate Kelli Zickert, maneuvered past two defenders and sent a shot into the back of the net on the far post.
In a Redbird career dogged by injury, she twice had scored on penalty kicks but never in game action. Teammates, coaches, family and friends — many of them Josh’s — erupted in joy.
The cheering section included her parents, Kevin and Vonda, her older sister, Emily, and younger brother, Ashton.
“It was loud,” Hannah said Saturday. “My mom said she bawled after I scored. I think everyone knew that was Josh’s goal.”
No. 2 knew it better than anyone, yet did not know the goal’s ultimate value. Her divinely placed shot held up for a 1-0 victory.
“It was an incredible moment,” said ISU head coach Brad Silvey. “I was incredibly happy for Hannah and her family and for the opportunity to not only celebrate Josh, but to honor him with a team win and Hannah scoring the lone goal of the night.
“I don’t think we could have scripted it or drawn it up any better.”
News of Josh’s death in late April left Hannah reeling. She didn’t finish the spring semester in the classroom or in soccer.
She returned to soccer at the start of summer workouts on June 1.
“I know Josh would have wanted that,” she said.
She is back in the swing academically as well, focusing the best she can. Still, sometimes the heart is heavy and the mind strays.
Yet, there is triumph in continuing to compete. Her time at ISU has been “a crazy ride,” she said. In addition to enduring injuries and unthinkable tragedy, she is playing for her third head coach in four years.
“I’ve had some pretty strange injuries,” she said. “I had shin splints and then I tore some stuff in my toe and couldn’t really even walk for a while. And coaching changes are always hard in college sports.
“But … roll with the punches.”
Silvey admires how she’s coped with the “ups and downs and bumps and challenges.”
“To get herself where she is now and to have overcome so much, she sets a great example for our underclassmen,” he said. “I think that (Friday’s goal) was a very defining moment for her.”
Hannah called it “awesome” and surely Josh would agree. She sensed his presence “the whole night, but especially when I scored and right after.”
It brought Mom to tears.
“I was pretty close,” Hannah said. “But I held it together.”
Like always, Josh would be proud.