UI star returns to stage
CHAMPAIGN – Sarah Heggen sounds more like an art major than a soccer player when she talks about teammate Lisa Baldwin's propensity to blush.
When they were freshmen at Illinois, Baldwin took a speech communications course that included public speaking. When she'd get in front of the crowd, her face grew brighter than her red hair.
"I have never seen anyone's face get so red as Lisa's," Heggen said. "It's like a cherry. I'm not kidding."
A few years later, Baldwin is a little better about talking to groups. Instead of stuttering and feeling faint, she just turns a lighter shade of red.
But that took some work. Coach Tricia Taliaferro, an assistant at the time, would make Baldwin read speeches in her office to prepare for class.
"I'd argue with her about it," Baldwin said. "I'd make her turn around so she wouldn't look at me. But I've changed a lot from freshman year to now."
The banquet circuit might not be her bag, but Baldwin is definitely comfortable performing in front of soccer crowds.
The junior forward should be one of Illinois' top scoring threats heading into today's season opener at Eastern Illinois.
Coming off an injury-filled sophomore season, the energetic, superstitious Baldwin is looking to improve on her freshman year, when she led the team with 14 goals.
"She dislocated her kneecap last year, and she's just now coming back," Taliaferro said. "She did it twice last season, sat out once and came back to play again. I have a lot of respect for that."
Baldwin still cringes when she talks about the injury. After scoring five goals in the Illini's first five games – she finished with eight – Baldwin popped the kneecap during a practice in mid-September.
Faced with surgery or playing out the season on a gimpy left knee, she chose to keep going. She was in and out of the lineup but did play the final game against Michigan in the Big Ten tournament.
"I get flashbacks all the time," Baldwin said. "When it would pop out, it hurt bad. It was frustrating. But I did what I had to do to help the team win."
She had surgery in November and was playing soccer again by June. Baldwin said it's not 100 percent, but it's good enough to make her one of the Big Ten's best again.
"She had her knee surgery in November and she's worked really hard coming back from that," Heggen said. "Her touch is back and her shooting is back."
At least her energy never left, Heggen said. The two roomed together last year and spent many spring nights making midnight runs to Target and Meijer.
"We would just walk up and down the aisles, look at the food, then go to the schools supplies," Heggen said. "Just little silly things. We were like kids in a toy store. We'd make a McDonald's run and get the Happy Meal to get the little toy out of it.
"She's one of the most energetic people I have ever met."
And superstitious. Baldwin used to wear a lucky necklace and bracelets but chucked them after the knee injuries.
She polished her spikes before every game. Baldwin paints her finger nails orange and blue, but she's still all New York.
Baldwin grew up in Lindenhurst, N.Y., a Long Island suburb about 40 minutes outside of New York City. UI teammate Tara Schuling – a West Babylon, N.Y., native – said other Illini try to imitate her accent, which is as strong as Baldwin's shot.
"They try to imitate Lisa, but it never works," said Schuling, who has played with and against Baldwin since they were 10-year-olds. "She's unique."
Heggen joked that "we couldn't understand a word she said" as freshmen. At times she reminds you of Mike Myers' "Coffee Talk" character on Saturday Night Live.
Her teammates love to hear her say ball (baawl), coffee (caawfee) and talk (tawk).
"It's mellowed, but we still ask her to say ball and orange," said Heggen, an Allen, Texas native. "She's gotten to me. I randomly says words like her. I'll say 'orange' (awrange) and realize I said it like a New Yorker, and I'm from Texas."
Baldwin said people have made fun of her accent for years, but she likes it and she loves New York. She speaks passionately about New York bagels, and although the Midwest is an adopted home, there's no place like "The Big Apple."
"And she'll make fun of the pizza," Heggen said. "Apparently, you can't get good deep-dish pizza around here."
Schuling said their parents do send care packages of bagels, so that helps. Baldwin, a leisure studies major who wants to go into sports management, would like to return to New York someday.
In the meantime, she's worried about returning to the Big Ten tournament and going even farther.
"We're focusing on one thing – winning the Big Ten," Baldwin said. "I definitely think we can make the (NCAA tournament). If we work together and do well as a team, we'll make it really far."