Illinois and 13 new faces ready for soccer test

Illinois and 13 new faces ready for soccer test

   CHAMPAIGN  They''re not spending 12 days of quality time together on some deserted Air Force base in Rantoul.

   But Jillian Ellis and her Illinois soccer crew are leaving campus soon for a little get-to-know-you excursion of their own.

   A week from today, they take off for two days of camping and canoeing along the Wabash River in Crawfordsville, Ind.

   They''ll pitch tents, toast marshmallows, swap ghost stories, really rough it.

   "You need a break. You need some down time," said Ellis, who came up with the idea to get away from it all a year before Ron Turner. "We did it last year, and they all loved it. It''s just kind of a nice experience of getting together and doing some team bonding."

   With more than half the roster new to college life, a few days in the woods could do Ellis'' troops some good.

   Gives the veterans a chance to mix and mingle with the rookies.

   "It takes you out of the soccer atmosphere and gets you into a more personal atmosphere," junior goalie Amy Bessette said. "It''s important to have team chemistry on the field and off the field in order to have a successful program."

   If Illinois is going to have one in its second Division I season, it will need the 13 freshmen to contribute immediately.

   Ellis has just nine returnees and nine starting slots to fill.

   "We''re looking at possibly our whole line being freshmen," sophomore midfielder Kris Twyning said. "That''s a big step up for them."

   It''s up to Twyning and the rest of the veterans to make sure they don''t trip. To help break in the rookies, Ellis implemented a Big Sister program, in which each one is paired with a returnee.

   Big Sis is responsible for picking up the tab at Custard Cup, helping the freshmen find their classes, answering their every question.

   They''ll be busy.

   "I have no idea where I''m going around this place," freshman Emily Brown said. "It''s huge."

   The veterans even plan to take it easy on the new kids come initiation time, though a game plan has yet to be devised.

   "Last year, we had to wear bright orange and blue signs around campus the day before the first game," sophomore Laura Lantz said. "Big ones on our front and back that said, ''Our first game is tomorrow. I''m a freshman. My name is ...'' It was kind of embarrassing, walking around campus with these big signs. You could see the other freshmen from like a mile away.

   "We had some whipped cream and shaving cream fights, but nothing too extreme. We''re very nice compared to some of the other clubs and sports."

   Better be. The freshmen mean as much to Ellis'' program as Peoria does to Lon Kruger. She lucked out last year and was able to steal a few recruits late, but this is the first class she had a full year to recruit.

   You won''t find a bigger one anywhere in the Big Ten.

   "I''ve never had 13 freshmen," Ellis said. "What am I, crazy? I''m going to be gray by the end of the season."

   Ellis went all over the place to find them. From Long Island, where she spotted Lisa Baldwin, to Lake Ridge, Va., home of Heidi Holtzman.

   The 13 recruits come from seven states, giving the Illini a nice mix of accents and soccer styles.

   "Across the country, they play different styles of soccer, and I wanted to try to get a nice blend," Ellis said. "You look at New England kids, they play physical. Kids from Texas tend to be great athletes. Virginia kids are very technical but tough.

   "To compete now, you''ve got to have different types of styles. You''ve got to have some kids that are just hard and physical, that can win the ball. And you''ve got to have some kids that are great with the ball at their feet."

   She didn''t beat too many Big Ten teams from September to November, but Ellis kicked some serious tail after that.

   She convinced Emily Brown, the state''s player of the year according to one Chicago newspaper, and her twin sister, Molly, to choose Illinois over proven programs at Wisconsin, Michigan State and Northwestern.

   She made a believer out of Texan Sarah Heggen, who also was thinking about Penn State, an NCAA tournament team a year ago.

   "A couple of the Iowa coaches have told me, ''Oh, you''ve got a great recruiting class,'' " Ellis said. "The other Big Ten coaches have been very complimentary of our recruiting class. I think it''s going to show. I think we will be respected by our opponents."

   Ellis sold recruits on being part of something new and exciting.

   Come here, she said, and you can play right away. Come here, and watch the program take off in a few years.

   "I think it would be exciting to be a part of the base of a really good team," Emily Brown said. "She didn''t make it sound like we were going to be great automatically, but she had a lot of good things to say about what could happen."

   And she''s talking about this century. With grizzled veterans Kelly Buszkiewicz and Sarah Aberle and rising rookies like Holtzman and the Brown twins, Ellis sees no reason why last year''s 7-10, 1-8 Big Ten cellar dweller can''t be a top-four team in the league this fall.

   After all, breaking in a freshman midfielder isn''t like breaking in a freshman quarterback.

   "In soccer, if you''re a good player, you can step in and play," Ellis said. "In soccer, some of the best players  All-Americans  can be freshmen.

   "A lot of these players are going to come in and help us right away."

Soccer by the numbers

   Some numbers you should know about Illinois women''s soccer:

   1  Big Ten games Illinois won last season (Northwestern in double OT) and seniors on this year''s roster (Sarah Aberle).

   2 p.m.  Fans are welcome to drop by the First and Stadium Multiplex on Sunday for autographs and photo ops. Around 3 p.m., the Illini will scrimmage St. Charles, the top club team in the state.

   3  Big Ten teams in the American Soccer Coaches Association''s preseason poll: No. 11 Minnesota, No. 15 Michigan and No. 21 Penn State. The Nittany Lions come to town on Sept. 20 for the Big Ten home opener.

   6th  Where Jillian Ellis'' first full recruiting class ranks in the Midwest, according to Soccer Buzz magazine.

   7  Goals scored in nine Big Ten games by the Illini. The competition had 27.

   9/6  Ellis turns 32 and Illinois kicks off its home season against Quincy.

   11  Big Ten schools fielding Division I soccer teams this season. Purdue joins the party this fall.

   48  Teams invited to this year''s NCAA tournament, up from 32 last year.

   50  Goals scored by star recruit Emily Brown as a senior at New Trier High.

   520  Average turnout for UI matches last fall.

Sections (3):Illini Sports, Sports, Soccer
Categories (3):Illini Sports, Soccer, Sports