Soccer out of the shadows
CHAMPAIGN – Contrary to popular belief, women's soccer has been alive and kicking at the University of Illinois for years.
It's just that no one noticed until now.
"The eye's on you more than it was before," said Amy Bessette, who played goalie on one of America's top club soccer teams last year. "We didn't have media day for club. We didn't have to get our pictures taken. You've got to be more of a role model now because people are watching.
"There's just a lot more pressure."
A step up in class will bring with it increased attention this fall for Bessette and the other club leftovers who'll help Illinois make the move to Division I this fall.
But unless a few of Pele's little sisters show up in the next few weeks, the Illini will likely take a step down in success.
Illinois reached the Final Four on the club level last year, a feat no one's talking about repeating in Division I come November.
These things take time, you know.
"You just can't get it all in one year," said Michigan coach Debbie Belkin, who found that out the hard way three years ago. "We all have good schools to sell, and we all have the support in the Big Ten, but we all can't win from Day 1. I learned you have to be patient."
A lesson for Illinois and Iowa, the newest members of the Big Ten women's soccer club. Both will kick off their Division I programs early next month. Both could have it tough playing catchup in a conference with eight established programs.
"I think it will be four or five years," Indiana coach Joe Kelly said.
New Illinois coach Jillian Ellis was hoping for something a little sooner.
"I have a three-year contract, so I hope it's a three-year plan," said Ellis, who'll turn 31 next month.
The Ellis Plan:
1997 – Earn a spot in the eight-team Big Ten tournament at Minneapolis, lay down the foundation and mop up in recruiting.
"I don't think we're looking at wins and losses too much the first year," said sophomore Kelly Buszkiewicz, who followed Ellis to C-U from Virginia.
"I think right now we're concentrating more on being competitive," defender Laura Land said.
That said ...
"I don't want us to be a doormat," Ellis said. "For us to make the Big Ten tournament would be a great accomplishment."
Cracking the top eight in a 10-team league could be harder than it sounds.
"There are many of us that can compete with a North Carolina or a Notre Dame right now," Belkin said, referring to the Division I elite.
Five Big Ten clubs made it to the NCAA tournament last year. Seventh-place Indiana was one of them, coming out of nowhere to win the Big Ten tournament.
"The Big Ten was thinking of going to a six-team tournament this year, but the coaches convinced them not to," Kelly said. "There are eight teams that could win the tournament. Since it started three years ago, no one's blown anyone out.
"I think, from top to bottom, it's the toughest conference in the country."
Wisconsin and Michigan State are the grandmothers of the league, the Badgers fielding a team in 1981 and the Spartans starting up five years later. Indiana, Minnesota and Ohio State joined them in 1993, and Michigan, Northwestern and Penn State came a year after that.
One thing they've all got that Illinois doesn't: seniors.
"You can't coach that," Kelly said.
1998 – Earn a spot in the 32-team NCAA tournament.
Her buddy at Clemson did it in a year with some good recruiting, so why can't she?
"My friend at Clemson got six studs in and put her program on the map," Ellis said. "So we're going shopping."
Just a figure of speech.
To get to the postseason, she'll have to beef up the schedule and lose some of the Auroras, Quincys, Loyolas and Rhodes Colleges.
Like in basketball, strength of schedule is a critical factor the NCAA takes into account when picking its field.
Ellis' late hire had something to do with the light nonconference docket, which starts with St. Louis University on Sept. 2.
"When we came in, pretty much everybody had their schedules set," Ellis said. "That put us behind a little bit. I'm already doing a schedule for '98."
1999 – Hit the big time.
"I want to be competing for a national championship in three years," Ellis said. "It's pretty aggressive."
You can say that again.
Illinois has a lot of catching up to do – not only in the Big Ten, but also nationally. Last year, 211 schools fielded Division I teams.
The NCAA will know next month how many more schools are adding Division I programs this fall. Count on around 27, the average increase the last four years.
"Illinois and Iowa have it tougher than we did when we all came in around the same time," Kelly said.
Working in Ellis' favor are the UI's facilities. A year before her scheduled championship run, she'll be able to show recruits the Illini's spiffy new lighted field, which will be located inside the current track.
"All the support's here," Ellis said. "Schools that are willing to put the money in are going to reap the benefits."