As the Illinois football team was pounding California in Berkeley last weekend, the Illini had a very interested fan down the coast in Los Angeles.
Jillian Ellis is entering her third year as UCLA's women's soccer coach, but she still feels a part of the Illinois team she started and then left after the 1998 season.
"The other day I was cheering them on when they were playing the Cal team," Ellis said. "Illinois is always going to be special to me."
That's what makes her official homecoming even better this weekend. Ellis' powerhouse UCLA squad, ranked No. 2 in the country by the coaches and several publications, is part of the four-team Orange and Blue Classic along with the Illini, Syracuse and Louisville.
Ellis returned last spring when Illinois played the Mexican National team last spring. She can't wait for reunion No. 2.
"I'm extremely excited to see all the good people there," Ellis said. "I'm going to enjoy being out there and coaching on that field. It's going to be kind of a nice way to see these (Illinois) players and how they've evolved."
The members of Ellis' first Illinois recruiting class are seniors or redshirt juniors now. Ellis and Illini coach Tricia Taliaferro decided against playing each other in the Classic because emotions run too deep.
"She's a friendly face and she's done a lot for Illinois soccer," senior Heidi Holtzman said. "We're still on friendly terms with her."
Ellis, who took UCLA to the Final Four last season, still checks Illinois' scores on the Internet and keeps in close contact with Taliaferro, who has shaped the Illini into a top 20 program.
Ellis was one of the first people to call Taliaferro on Selection Sunday after Illinois made the NCAA tournament last fall.
"We talk a lot," said Taliaferro, who was a player at Maryland when Ellis was an assistant coach there. "We're good friends and it will be good to have her back in Champaign. I went out to San Jose for the Final Four so we could be there."
UCLA is the preseason favorite to win the Pac-10 after last year's surprising run. The pressure is greater. But Ellis' goals remain the same.
"From the day I set foot on the campus of the U of I, my goal was to win a national championship," Ellis said. "I remember my first meeting with the club saying that we expect to win the championship. Other's expectations might have increased, but mine was always there."
As for the Illini, they face Syracuse at 7 tonight in their only tournament game.
"There's a little history between Syracuse and us," Holtzman said. "We lost (3-0) to them last year and we want the opportunity to come back and play them again and show them. We want to put on a great show in our first home game."