CHAMPAIGN – Julie Schueller can remember the day another Wisconsin prep coach told her Illinois was starting a women's soccer team.
The Mequon, Wis., native had led her high school to the state championship as a junior and was looking for a chance to play college soccer in 1997.
"The coach said 'You should look into this and you could help start a team,' " Schueller said. "That was a big thing for me."
The same went for Laura Lantz, a star midfielder from Buffalo Grove High School. Drawn by the promise of building a program from the ground up, Lantz became former coach Jillian Ellis' first recruit.
"When we got here, the first thing Jill said was 'We are making history,' " Schueller said. "That was cool."
They were the pioneers of Illinois soccer. Four years later – through 36 teammates and two head coaches – Schueller said they're the "last survivors."
Injuries and waves of talented underclassmen have limited their playing time. But the two seniors, who were honored Sunday, have seen it all.
"(Ellis') big thing was we're starting a journey and we're going on this journey together," Lantz said. "Being four years later, we've made it through and I think that's big. There's a lot of people who don't get to say they've played four years of college soccer and come out of it like we are right now."
For the first time since her freshman year, Lantz is healthy and contributing to the team, playing in 10 games. Schueller, however, has been limited to 11 games and could miss the Big Ten tournament because of a knee injury.
"They've meant everything," teammate Lindsay Johnson said. "They've been here since the beginning. They've struggled and went through their injuries and it's good to see them still here."
Lantz scored three goals and started every game her freshman year. But injuries limited her to two starts in 1998 and one game in '99.
She remembers that inaugural season fondly and said Illinois surprised the soccer community with its 7-10 start. She isn't bitter about the bad luck that hampered her career.
"Starting my sophomore year, when injuries hit, I had to learn to be a role player on the team," Lantz said. "That was new for me, but it was something good.
"It's been a good thing for my life in general, learning the discipline of being a role player and whether I was injured or not, trying to do what I could to help the team out."
Lantz became a two-time Academic All-Big Ten performer and won the George Huff Award the past two years.
"She's known what we're about and what we're wanting to accomplish ever since Day One," UI coach Tricia Taliaferro said. "It feels special to see her go all the way through the program, move on and get a job and get into the real world."
It's doubtful that Schueller will add to her school record of 61 games played. Fans will miss her winning 50-50 balls and knocking around opponents with her 5-foot-10 frame.
"She's been playing her best soccer," Taliaferro said. "Anytime somebody's been through the program this long, they know what it's about. They understand how special it is to go through four years. They're the first class we've ever had."
The late-season injury is a downer for Schueller, but she's hoping to see the Illini finish off big games with top-quality teams this week.
"I think in games to come, they're going to finish those games, and it's going to take it up to another level," Schueller said. "We'll see in years to come. They should do great. They have a great base and hopefully we've helped build that base."
Johnson said the younger Illini tease the seniors about their age. They expect to stay part of the program. Schueller even joked it will be her and Lantz at the first alumni game.
"It'll be the two of us against 11 of them," Lantz said.
BIG TEN TOURNAMENT CHAMPIONS
1998 Penn State
REGULAR SEASON CHAMPIONS
2000 Penn State
1999 Penn State
1998 Penn State
REGULAR SEASON PLAYERS OF THE YEAR
1999 Christie Welsh Penn State
1998 Erica Westrich Northwester
1997 Jennifer McElmury Minnesota
1996 Jennifer McElmury Minnesota
1995 Jennifer Walek Minnesota
1994 Karen Winslow Michigan State