CHAMPAIGN – When Amy Bessette sticks her head out of Illinois' goal tonight, she'll see 120 yards of freshly mowed Kentucky bluegrass, several hundred fans in the stands and teammates running around in snazzy new uniforms.
It's a far cry from the Illinois women's soccer scene she experienced when she first arrived on campus.
"Totaly different world," Bessette said.
The senior goalie is the only Illini who can tell you what it was like back when club soccer was the only game in town. Before Illinois fielded its first Division I team in the fall of 1997, she spent a year playing for the no-frills, pay-your-own-way Illinois club team.
"It humbles you, keeps you grounded," Bessette said. "I know it sounds cheesy, but it brings a smile to my face because it's just so much fun. It's been fun to see it evolve. I'm just absolutely so grateful to be able to play on club and varsity."
Bessette's had a blast from the beginning – even if the accommodations weren't quite the same as they are nowadays.
When Illinois goes on road trips now, no longer does she have to come up with gas money, bum a ride from a teammate or pay for her own hotel room.
Ron Guenther picks up the whole tab.
"In club, all the expenses are on you," Bessette said. "That's one of the perks of being in an excellent program like this. Here, we get in one of those big Illini Swallow vans. In club, you pitch in for gas and drive in a bunch of cars."
"And the really bad part is when you have to drive and then play right after you get out of the car," said Scott Wilson, who still coaches a club team on campus. "We don't have the luxury of staying over the night before."
They played their home games at a 4-year-old field on the corner of Florida and Lincoln but don't have lights like the varsity team's home does.
And it doesn't seat 8,000, as the varsity field should by this time next season.
Not that seating's ever been a problem at club games.
"It was mostly friends and family," Bessette said. "But they counted."
Her team's highlights didn't make the 10 o'clock news, her uniform was a hand-me-down and the price for playing usually amounted to about $300 a semester.
The cost went up in those years the team had to fly to Texas for nationals, as Bessette's did in 1996. They got as far as the semifinals at the National Intramural Recreation and Sports Association tournament that year, making Bessette the only Illini with Final Four experience on her resume.
"Club days were great," she said. "You're out there, voluntarily doing it, but we still had goals that were important."
When Illinois announced it was starting a varsity program and held open tryouts, Wilson lost 13 of his 15 players. Bessette's the last one left heading into Year 3 of varsity soccer at Illinois, which kicks off at 7 tonight with a home game against Marquette.
"It's funny. Our first day of tryouts we did a speed ladder where we raced all the kids against each other, and Amy Bessette was the fastest one on the team," said UI coach Tricia Taliaferro, who's watched her save 163 shots the last two seasons. "Usually, your goalkeeper isn't the fastest one on the team. We were excited when we came in and saw her."
It's no coincidence she stuck around so long. In high school, Bessette led Lincoln-Way to three Elite Eight berths and was recruited by Eastern Illinois, among others.
But she turned down a chance to play Division I soccer in favor of a Big Ten education.
Little did she know then she'd get a shot to do both at Illinois.
"I got lucky," Bessette said. "I got the best of both worlds."