She awoke one morning at 4:30 a.m., in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, late last summer. Dani Kaufman, New Trier High School’s reigning Class 3A state champion soccer goalkeeper, would hike for six hours that day with a guide and her father, David.
They wore climbing shoes and packed harnesses and ropes. The order for the trek: guide, Dani, John.
“My dad was the anchor,” Dani Kaufman recalled. “I love to travel. I love the outdoors. That hike was really cool.”
Before the hike, before the sun greeted early risers, the father and daughter sat and talked and reflected on what the daughter had accomplished while wearing soccer shoes and making save after save for two teams in the previous five months or so. The hiking enthusiast got horizontal for some, ascended for others. Dani Kaufman had also been the trusty keeper for FC United’s U16 squad, which placed third in the nation last summer at the US Youth Soccer tournament in Germantown, Maryland.
“Crazy … those months were crazy,” Dani, now a senior-to-be, said. “My dad and I both thought that. It was unbelievable, those accomplishments. I fully realized, before going on that hike, how special those teams were and how fortunate I was to be a part of them.”
She became a junior at New Trier High School in the fall of 2014, the soreness from that hike long gone. Spring arrived and so did sustained success for the Trevians’ girls soccer program and its four-limbed wall of a keeper. Again. NT (27-1-1) defeated Neuqua Valley 2-0 on June 6, marking the second time a team coached by Jim Burnside had captured consecutive state titles. (His 2003 and ’04 New Trier teams hauled first-place prizes from North Central College in Naperville to Winnetka.)
Kaufman hadn’t allowed a goal in the postseason, seven matches total. She had gone 7-0 — with no goals allowed — during the previous postseason. Her goals-against average for the ’15 season was a 0.35, a dinky and wonderfully stingy number. The Illinois High School Soccer Coaches Association named Kaufman a first-team all-stater. How long did it take to make that decision? One second? A tenth of a second?
“She came up with a lot of great saves, some of them unbelievable [in the ’15 state final and a 1-0 double overtime win over Barrington High School in a state semifinal on June 5],” said New Trier senior-to-be Celia Frei, a midfielder who scored both goals in the state title match earlier this month and has battled with Kaufman on FC United teams, including the one that starts US Youth Soccer Region II U17 action this weekend in Appleton, Wisconsin, and other sites in the northeastern part of the state.
“There were times,” she added, “when many of us thought, after watching her make an amazing save, Wow, I thought that shot was going in. She has quick reactions. It’s like she knows where the ball is going to go before anybody else does. She always seems to be exactly where she needs to be to stop a shot. Dani reads shots well.”
Kaufman was 10 years old when a soccer coach informed her one day, “Hey, you’re in goal.” Kaufman’s quick reaction to the news was, “Sure, why not?” She got used to using her hands on soccer pitches. Opponents soon wished she hadn’t.
“I started to enjoy it,” Kaufman, a Wilmette resident, recalled. “Then I fell in love with the position.”
She honed her craft in front of the nets under the guidance of Burnside and FC United goalkeepers coach Jim McNitt, a pair of former New Trier keepers. McNitt earned All-America soccer status at New Trier and at Amherst College in Massachusetts. A goalkeeper in soccer is lot like a catcher in baseball or softball, constantly facing the entire field, setting up the defense, shouting encouraging words one minute and barking necessary orders the next. Catchers wear masks. Kaufman wears leadership well.
“Dani provides really good direction for her teammates,” McNitt said. “She is a good, positive leader, what you want from your field general. Her communication skills are the kind you want from a goalie. Her technique … she is technically very sound. She has tremendous resolve and heart and determination; she gets in the goal in those games, and this girl is laser-focused. And her work ethic, what many people don’t see, is outstanding.
“I saw fire, her competitiveness, when I started working with her. It’s still there.”
It will be there, no doubt, when she starts to play for the University of Maryland after one more season as a Trevian. Kaufman committed to the Big Ten school last July.
There’s another side to the 5-foot-8 Kaufman, a side that is packed with attributes her teammates and friends appreciate and embrace. She is fun, quick to laugh, quick to make others laugh. Kaufman was in charge of the music played on team bus trips this spring. Hey, … Miss DJ. The first song had to be “Real Love,” by Clean Bandit. The last song had to be “Lose Yourself,” by Eminem. A superstitious bunch, those Trevs.
“Pump-up music,” Frei said. “The music Dani picked for our road trips was never slow.”
More than two years ago, when Kaufman was a freshman and recent 2015 New Trier graduate and all-state defender Jackie Welch was a sophomore, the two stood near each other in between sprints at a varsity practice. Welch, an FC United player, had heard of Kaufman. Kaufman was that promising goalkeeper for a younger FC United squad.
“She came right up to me and started a conversation,” Welch recalled. “She said, ‘Jackie, I can tell we’re going to be good friends.’
“I hardly knew her then.”
Dani Kaufman and Jackie Welch are good friends today. They will be good friends tomorrow and too many tomorrows to count after that. Pick a Trevians soccer player, any Trevians soccer player. That player, more than likely, counts Kaufman as a good friend.
“Dani isn’t just a talented goalie,” Welch said. “She wants to get to know everybody on the team, on and off the field. She gets along with everybody. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen a picture of her eating ice cream with a teammate, hoping to get to know that teammate better.”