Michelle Dasso: Miracle worker
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URBANA – When she was 6, Michelle Dasso had a racket in her hands.
"My wife would take her to the Tiny Tots program," says Ed Dasso, her father. "She would have coffee, and the girls would play."
Fittingly, it wasn't a tennis racket, but a racquetball racket. Michelle would smack the blue racquetball and race endless circles around the court until they told her to go home.
"I had no idea what I was doing," she says. "I just knew I loved it."
Eventually that racquetball morphed into a tennis ball, and Michelle Dasso began stockpiling trophies, including the hardware for the ITA National Senior Player of the Year she won at Notre Dame.
So you figure all those trophies are tucked neatly into a case, or crammed into a basement, or showcased at her parents' home in Long Grove, right?
"She gave them all away," her father says. "She was never really into trophies. She would give them to other girls."
Fittingly, now that she's the brains and spirit behind the fast-rising Illinois women's tennis program, she wants another trophy.
"I want a Big Ten championship. I want to hang a banner up there."
She would keep that one.
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It's almost like Michelle Dasso prefers to operate in contradictions.
Her competitive streak extends to pingpong matches inside Atkins Tennis Complex or running the steps at Memorial Stadium with her players – but she had no interest in keeping the fruits of her labors, a bounty of tennis trophies.
She says recruiting is "the least-favorite part of my job" – but she and UI assistant David Emery have signed the first blue-chip recruits in the program's history.
And picture this contradictory scene. Minutes after a loss in the 2007 Big Ten tournament, the first-year coach addressed the Illini. Their 5-17 season – in which they fell to a program-worst 1-9 in the Big Ten – mercifully had come to an end.
"Right when it was over I told them, 'Our goal is to make the NCAA tournament next year,' " Dasso recalls. "After that season, and telling them that, people thought I was a little crazy."
Maybe a smidgen. The Illini had gone 3-17 in their last 20 Big Ten matches and had played several matches with just five players, sacrificing a point before the match even started.
"I thought she was crazy. I said, 'What's she talking about?' " says All-Big Ten junior Megan Fudge, a freshman at the time. "It was like, 'What are we doing here? We can't even keep up with the middle-of-the-pack teams in the Big Ten.' "
Now, 24 months later, the UI women have earned the right to host an NCAA regional for the second time in program history. No. 34 Illinois (18-7) opens regional play against No. 19 Vanderbilt (11-8) at noon Saturday at the Khan Outdoor Tennis Complex.
It's also the first time the UI men and women will host a regional in the same year, the latest indication Dasso's vision wasn't crazy. The No. 13 Illinois men open NCAA play by hosting Western Michigan at 2 p.m. today.
"I think on paper Illinois lends itself to being a little stronger women's program than men's program, actually," says UI men's coach Brad Dancer, whose program is one of three in the nation to reach the Sweet 16 seven straight years. "And I think the path that she's on – what they've done, combined with their recruiting classes – they're going to be in great shape, where they can compete with the best teams in the country."
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When speaking of Michelle's athletic abilities, her parents don't talk about a tennis player with a rocket forehand, or an overwhelming serve.
No, "She was the best shortstop I've ever seen," Ed Dasso says.
In fact, there wasn't a tennis player in the Dasso family – "My best friend played tennis, and I did whatever she did," Michelle says – but two older brothers who excelled on the diamond and often included baby sister.
"She was four years younger than her brothers, and she would practice with their Little League team," says Ed Dasso, their Little League coach.
"I played just about everything. Softball, basketball, soccer," Michelle Dasso says. "I even tried ice skating. I was very unsuccessful at that."
That sporting variety extends into her approach to coaching. Dasso and Emery use "every facility on campus," she says, from workouts on the sand volleyball courts to wind sprints at the football team's indoor practice facility to step-running at Memorial Stadium.
"Amy," Dasso asks fresh- man standout Amy Allin, "how many steps are there at the stadium?"
"Too many," Allin replies.
"You say 'Stadiums,' and the girls start to get sore," Dasso says.
When Dasso was hired at Illinois in June 2006, she saw a facility that could rival any in college tennis, the banners won by a nationally prominent men's team, the academics reputation necessary for a top women's program and ... an underachieving program.
That's where the twice-weekly 7 a.m. workouts came in, along with the hated stadium runs. The culture around the program had to change before the results did.
"When you get a new coaching staff, I think you have to set the tone. You have to say, 'This is acceptable and this is unacceptable,' " she says. "First and foremost, the work ethic needed to get better. And the team chemistry had to get better. I'm a big, big believer in team unity.
"Ultimately, that's what makes college tennis so special. Tennis is an awesome sport, but it's more individual. That's not the case in college tennis. It's about the team."
* * *
To prove there's bite to their bark, Dasso and Emery train alongside the players.
"One of my beliefs is that anything you ask of your girls, you should be able to dish it out, too," she says.
She runs the stadium steps. She's there for the 7 a.m. weightlifting sessions. She whips the players on the court, with a tennis game that remains sharp.
"Competitive," Allin says when asked for one word to describe the coach. "She hates losing. I don't care if it's pingpong or Ultimate Frisbee or who can throw the ball better. She wants to be the best at everything. She doesn't even practice anymore, unless it's with us. She still comes out there and gets angry every time she loses a point."
"I got my first win against her the other day," says Fudge, the team's No. 1 player with a 28-7 record.
Told of the junior's claim, Dasso countered, showing her competitive streak.
"We didn't finish the set! We weren't even close!" the coach says. "I wouldn't put that in there (the story). I think she was up 3-2. But we'll finish another time.
"Don't worry. I can still take care of them (on the court)."
* * *
A feisty lefty with a rich tennis pedigree, Allin was a highly sought-after standout coming out of high school in Dallas. Her grandfather was a longtime coach at TCU. Two siblings played college tennis. Both parents played college tennis.
And, well, she was from Texas, with a legion of established programs to choose from.
"When she (Dasso) first started recruiting me, I had never heard of Illinois. I didn't even know what it was," Allin says. "It was like my dad said, 'You can play for any unranked school you want.' And Illinois wasn't ranked at the time.
"Their program was a bit of a mess."
Undeterred, Dasso and Emery employed the fullcourt recruiting press. They took morning flights to Dallas to watch Allin practice. They attended "a ton of my tournaments," she says. They made an in-home visit – "My family felt comfortable with her" – and iced the sales pitch with a hand-written note left at the front desk of a hotel.
"I was checking out of my room and they handed me a letter from Michelle," Allin says, adding, "They did a better job of recruiting than any coaches I've ever seen."
Dasso's golden recruiting touch is another contradiction, and proof the dramatic turnaround has staying power past this weekend. Considering the fact the UI has never won a Big Ten title – and won five matches just two seasons ago – the likes of Breanne Smutko (a Georgia product) and Rachael White (Deerfield) shouldn't be considering C-U as a destination.
"We were competing against Florida State, Arizona State, other Big Ten teams," Dasso says.
But the pair signed with Illinois in November – White as the nation's No. 3 recruit and Smutko at No. 20 – and figure to raise the bar another notch next season.
"This year our goal was to win a round in the NCAAs," Dasso says, pointing to Saturday's match. "Then you think about next year, and I want a Big Ten championship.
"You have all those men's banners (19 hanging in Atkins). Let's put a women's banner up there."
The idea contradicts the state of the program when she arrived. So it seems fitting.
"Everything you need to build a top team in the country is here," Dasso says. "I don't know why you can't."