Sat, May 10: Lantz''s chance at UI made real
The schools kept making offers to Laura Lantz. Colorado, West Virginia, the Naval Academy all sought the Buffalo Grove defender for their soccer teams.
But Lantz wanted the impossible: An offer from the University of Illinois, a school that didn't have a soccer team.
Lantz tried to do something about it. She sent her resume to the UI. Then, she sent it again and again. The message was always the same: Have soccer shoes and am willing to travel.
A year ago, Lantz heard rumors Illinois was about to start a varsity program. It didn't happen as soon as she hoped.
"I know they were so interested in making sure they got a coach for the (men's) basketball team and the football team that maybe soccer got put aside for a while," Lantz said.
Just as Lantz was about to pick another school, Jillian Ellis called with the news Lantz had been waiting for: Illinois was starting a program.
Lantz jumped at the chance to play for first-year coach Ellis.
"I think it will be neat to be part of the history there," Lantz said. "You think about it, it can't get any worse than your first year."
Illinois and Iowa are both joining the Big Ten in the fall. That will leave Purdue as the only Big Ten school without women's soccer. And the Boilermakers are adding the sport in 1999.
Women's soccer is a Big Ten infant. The league has offered a championship just three years. And three different schools have won conference titles.
The league, so strong in other sports, is becoming competitive at the national level. The Big Ten had five schools make the NCAA tournament field in 1996. From 1982-95, the conference had just 10 tournament bids total.
How long before Illinois joins the fun?
The players are hoping for quick progress. In their first year, they want to be competitive in the Big Ten and make the eight-team postseason tournament.
"It's going to be tough," forward Sarah Aberle said. "On the other hand, we're not going to get tromped by every single team we come up against."
Big Ten coaches won't take the Illini lightly, even in the first year.They've gotten burned in the past by teams they were supposed to handle.
"They will probably become competitive very early," Wisconsin coach Paul Duerst said. "The history of other programs joining the Big Ten is very similar. When Northwestern, Minnesota, Indiana and Penn State joined, immediately they were competitive."
In the old days, Duerst's Badgers ruled the Big Ten. The 14-year-old program was the first from the Big Ten to make the NCAA tournament, in 1985. Wisconsin reached the title game in '91, losing 3-1 against perennial power North Carolina.
"There's a tradition of top players in the region coming to Wisconsin," Duerst said.
Part of Duerst is worried that Illinois and Iowa will change that tradition. Part of Duerst is happy to have the schools join.
"I think it really will add to the conference," Duerst said. "It's going to affect Wisconsin in terms of recruiting. We'll have to work harder."
Wisconsin has recruited heavily in the Chicago area. With Illinois now in the picture, the top players have another option.
Like Sergio McClain in men's basketball, Lantz hopes to become a Pied Piper for Illini women's soccer. She's already encouraging players from her club team, the Buffalo Grove Lightning, to consider Illinois.
"I don't see why people wouldn't be drawn to Illinois," Lantz said. "Illinois is such a great school academically. There's a lot of great soccer players in the Midwest who I'm sure would be interested in going to Illinois."
Illinois will concentrate its recruiting in the Chicago and St. Louis areas. But the school also will recruit nationally.
"Obviously, we want to get the top kids in the state," UI assistant coach Trisha Taliaferro said.
Illinois players will dominate the roster when the Illini open against St. Louis University on Sept. 2. All four incoming freshmen are from the state.
"It's not going to be like a bunch of strangers coming together," Lantz said.
When the team started tryouts in February, Sarah Aberle was a stranger. She hadn't played with the UI club team, which provides the nucleus of the first varsity squad.
"I had heard since I came to the UI that they were thinking about getting a soccer team," said Aberle, a junior-to-be from Thousand Oaks, Calif.
Aberle had special insight into Illinois' soccer future. Her friend and former classmate at Westlake High School, Eric Guenther, also happens to be the nephew of UI athletic director Ron Guenther.
"He kind of kept me posted," Aberle said. "He let me know it was coming for sure."
A longtime player, Aberle thought her competitive days were over when she came to study business at Illinois. She stayed active, though, by playing on a men's intramural team.
"I wasn't so sure it (a varsity team) was going to happen," Aberle said.
Aberle made the team during tryouts and won over her unfamiliar teammates. They named her a co-captain along withsenior-to-be Missy Kann.
For Kann, her soccer time was running out. The prephysical therapy major from Libertyville satisfied her soccer craving by playing on the club team. She learned not to get her hopes up for a move to varsity status.
"I've been there for four years, and every year it's been said, 'Next year, next year,' " Kann said. "Every time they said it, I just kind of put it off.
"I'm elated just to get the opportunity to play. I thought I was going to graduate without getting this chance."
Countdown is on
The day Kann never thought would arrive is now less than four months away.
"We're kind of nervous about it," Kann said.
Kann isn't counting on any soccer miracles. She knows the program is at least a few years away from national prominence.
"I think it will be quickerthan most people think," Kann said.
The Illinois program will be financially competitive. The team will be fully funded, offering up to 12 scholarships. Lantz said she'll receive almost a full ride.
"In soccer, you can give partials," Taliaferro said.
The soccer facility still is being worked on. The first year, the team will play at the multiplex fields on First Street and Stadium Drive.
For the second season, the plan is to put a field inside the UI track.