Big Ten tourney perfect venue fo UI to shine
CHAMPAIGN – Julie Schueller stood near the sideline, looked across the 1-year-old soccer field at Illini Stadium and talked about pride.
The senior has been with the Illinois women's soccer team since its start in 1997. She's seen the program and its facilities built from the ground up.
"I'm proud of this field," Schueller said. "We should be proud to show off to the rest of the conference."
Their game and their stadium will be on display Nov. 2-5, when Illinois hosts the Big Ten tournament.
The Illini, who open their home schedule at 2 p.m. today against Kansas, hope to be among the eight teams competing in the conference finals.
"It's a tremendous event for us to hold," head coach Tricia Taliaferro said. "We can bring the Big Ten to this community. The fans have supported us throughout the years. Now it's giving them a gift back."
The best present would be the Big Ten title, but that's still months away.
Building off the World Cup last year, Taliaferro said the conference tournament should provide an even bigger boost to women's soccer in the area. The tournament also falls on Dad's Day.
"There's the Olympics, followed up by part of our season and the Big Ten tournament," Taliaferro said. "It will spark some more people to come out there – at least come out and see what soccer's about.
"Once they come out, I know they'll be a fan."
Fan support has been solid for UI games, and that could be a factor down the line if Illinois gets into the NCAA tournament.
Strong support and good facilities help the cause with the national tourney. Volleyball and women's basketball have proven Illinois can support its women's teams, especially in the postseason.
"If we have a record that's good enough to host, we're looking forward to it," said Lenny Willis, assistant athletic director. "Just about any time our teams have an opportunity to host, we would like to host."
But there's plenty of work ahead – on and off the field.
Big Ten time
There were boxes full of Big Ten and NCAA banners piled in the corner of Willis' office last week in the Bielfeldt Athletic Administration Building.
Willis is working with the conference to put on the four-day, eight-team tournament. It's the first conference championship event Illinois has hosted since the 1997 outdoor track finals.
"We want to put on a great show," Willis said. "The University of Illinois has been known, when they're hosting, that we've done a great job. We want to continue that with the soccer tournament."
Willis began working on the project piece by piece a year ago. He traveled with the team to Indiana to observe last year's tournament and learned a lot.
For a lifelong football guy, the long bus ride with 25 women also was enlightening.
"For 20-something women, man, they're a little loud," Willis said.
The Hoosiers did not advance to last year's postseason, so attendance was shaky. Games averaged less than 400 fans, and Hoosier regular season games get anywhere from 500 to 1,000.
Duer Sharp, a sports management administrator with the Big Ten, said the tournament rotates between schools. But having two quality fields – one with lights – helps the cause.
"You've got four matches on Friday, so you have to have access to two fields," Sharp said. "Everyone is fickle when it comes to their facilities."
Willis should get a second field – probably one of the ones on Florida Avenue – from the UI's Division of Campus Recreation.
Sharp said the $17,000 budgeted for the tournament by the conference goes mainly to officials. It also usually is used for hospitality.
Willis wishes he could use it to clear some hotel space. The Illinois football team hosts Indiana for Dad's Day that Saturday, so most beds are booked.
"The biggest thing has been the hotels," said Willis, who began reserving rooms last year. "We have some lined up for teams in the tournament. But parents, spectators, I don't know."
Taliaferro knows her players relish the opportunity to host the tournament.
"They have a lot of pride, and they take pride in hosting a big event," Taliaferro said. "They want people to come to campus and expect the best. It's neat for them to share their experiences and what Illinois has to offer."
If the team keeps improving, Willis hopes the Big Ten tournament is a warmup for future NCAA regionals. Schools host the first four rounds before the Final Four, which will be Dec. 1-3 at San Jose State.
Hosts are determined by seeding and facilities, although there is no minimum seating requirement like basketball, NCAA public information coordinator Jane Jankowski said.
"In the first round, you have 16 games and 16 different locations," Jankowski said. "I think the committee tries to go with the higher-seeded team and best facilities."
Illini Stadium can accommodate about 1,500 spectators, and there are plans to expand the seating, Illinois associate athletic director Dana Brenner said.
Brenner said the UI would like to "finish" the stadium with 4,000 permanent seats and a press box on the east side and 2,000 more seats and another smaller press box on the west.
Improved restroom, concession and ticket sales facilities would follow, although there is no funding or a timetable yet.
"That's what's in the drawing," Brenner said. "(Athletic director Ron Guenther) has an approximate cost for that project, and he's got other projects he can carry around to donors and see if there's a matchup that creates a spark."
If the timing is right, Brenner said Illinois "would entertain those thoughts for a bid" this year. The lighting, new scoreboard and new sound system would be attractive to the NCAA.
So would strong crowd support. Illinois averaged about 700 fans a game last year, and Jankowski said most first-round sites drew anywhere from 834 at California-BYU in Provo, Utah, to 3,702 at Notre Dame-Nebraska in Lincoln, Neb.
"One of the things they look at is what type of revenue can you deliver hosting," Brenner said. "They don't look at permanent seating capacity but what you drew during regular season, what kind of community is it.
"Can you draw a reasonable crowd? They help fund it, but if the championship can help itself, that puts them in a better situation. But making revenue isn't the only issue out there."
With all that in mind, UI soccer players know they have a golden opportunity if they can reach the postseason.
"With the dad's weekend the same weekend, it will bring crowds here," sophomore Tara Schuling said. "We're psyched about it already. There's a little pressure to get in it. But the pressure's good."
Illinois reached the second round of last year's tournament, losing to eventual champion Michigan.
The Illini, ranked sixth in the Great Lakes region in a preseason "Soccer Buzz Magazine" poll, expect to make progress in the conference standings and in the tourney.
"That's the next step for this program," Taliaferro said. "To get to the finals of the Big Ten and challenge for the Big Ten title. If it happens this year or next year, that's just where we are."
Taliaferro's team played in front of 400 fans during an exhibition game last weekend, and more are expected for today's opener.
Willis envisions even bigger crowds if the Illini are playing in November.
"If we see our team in the championship game, I guarantee we'll have a great crowd," Willis said. "It will be unbelievable for soccer in this area."