UI soccer, track teams get a park of their own

UI soccer, track teams get a park of their own

Hear more from coach Turk Saturday at 9:10 on WDWS.

CHAMPAIGN — Illinois track and field has been without a truly permanent home for 30 years after one round of Memorial Stadium renovations in the late 1980s removed the track.

Those programs have instead bounced around campus — the Arboretum for cross-country and the Armory for indoor track and field — while sharing a facility on St. Mary's Road the past 20 years after women's soccer was added at Illinois.

Wednesday's announcement of the plans for Demirjian Park — that true home for both Illini soccer and track and field — is the culmination of something athletic director Josh Whitman said was essentially 20 and 30 years, respectively, in the making.

"We haven't had a facility that represents the support that we've had," said Illinois soccer coach Janet Rayfield.

"I've always known it, but I think with a step like this the world knows that soccer and track and field — and to be honest, every sport on this campus — is important to this athletics department. This is going to be a tangible, visible step in that direction."

Construction of the two new soccer fields — one for practice, the other for competition — will be complete in time for the 2019 season. Demirjian Park Stadium will be open for the 2021 track and field season.

The total cost has been split into two parts, with $14 million needed for the soccer fields and stadium and $4 million for a complete track rebuild. The Demirjian family of Decatur, who also donated for Illinois' indoor golf facility, provided a lead gift of $7 million.

Demirjian Park Stadium will be located between the new soccer fields and the renovated track. It will house team facilities for both sports, including locker rooms, meeting rooms, lounge and study spaces, sports medicine and nutrition facilities and coaches' offices.

A permanent dual grandstand — with sight lines for both soccer and track — is also part of the plan, along with permanent restrooms and concessions facilities.

The soccer and track upgrades will coincide construction-wise with the $79.2 million football performance center set to open in 2019.

"I think it's about being efficient in the dollars we spend," Whitman said of addressing needs for two sports that include more than 100 student-athletes combined. "We're always looking to take a single dollar and have it have as broad an impact as it can possibly have.

"We do have a number of other things in the pipeline. What we don't have the luxury of doing is sitting back and doing projects in sequence. ... We have to run parallel tracks. We have to tackle multiple projects at once in order to gain the ground we need to gain."

Rayfield likened herself to a "5-year-old on Christmas morning that opened the gift that they've been wanting for a decade."

Mike Turk, named the coach of the combined Illinois men's and women's track and field and cross-country program a year ago, has been waiting even longer.

Turk was one of those Illinois athletes competing on the track at Memorial Stadium. He has coached the past 12 years bouncing from spot to spot on campus with none of the support facilities close by or truly dedicated to his teams.

"What we try to sell is the athlete's experience," Turk said. "What kind of experience do you have when you don't have a locker room? What kind of experience do you have when you have to shuttle back and forth a couple times a day for practice?"

Both Rayfield and Turk said their new facilities that will make them neighbors instead of shared tenants will be a recruiting boost. Turk wants to recruit to the overall experience student-athletes have at Illinois, but he knows aspects like facilities, travel schedules and even uniforms can sway a prospective recruit.

"I'm tired of hearing kids say, 'We love what you're doing — we love what the program stands for — but we just don't feel comfortable there,'" Turk said. "I want kids that come here for what we have to offer, which is a great school and a great experience and a vision as developing them as people."