Listen to this article

CHAMPAIGN — It was a late-summer evening, and the Illinois soccer team hadn’t played a game yet this season when Janet Rayfield had a moment of realization that the program she’s coached since 2002 was about to change for good.

Rayfield was at the Illinois Soccer and Track Stadium, and as she looked across the fence at Demirjian Park, the Illini’s new multi-million dollar home that remains under construction, it all sunk in.

“I looked up and there was the top of the scoreboard on a crane,” she said. “It was sort of this kind of realistic moment where, ‘Wow, this thing is actually going to happen and Illinois soccer is going to have a new home.’ I can just remember the feeling of sort of the anticipation.

“You just all of a sudden felt like this is … really something that’s going to say, ‘Hey, here’s the home of Illinois soccer.’ And that was just a special moment all by myself.”

The facility is still far from finished, but the Illini will make their debut on their new field at 1 p.m. Sunday against Colorado College.

By next year, a building that houses both track and soccer will be erected between the track and the soccer field, complete with bleachers on each side facing each field. For now, that area is simply a dirt construction site.

“Hopefully we see some of that construction going up as we continue to see games on the competition field and that becomes the backdrop (for soccer games),” said Brett Stillwell, the UI’s associate athletic director for capital projects and facilities. “It’ll be a little bit makeshift, but it should be functional for what we need to do to host events, and then certainly the value of it all is the promise of a new stadium next year.”

For now, the press box that used to be at the corner of the soccer and track stadium is at midfield, with benches on either side. Fans will sit in temporary bleachers on the north end of the field, mostly behind the goal. Stillwell said the athletic department has even bought a few extra game balls in case that balls are cleared into the construction site.

“All of those things are things we need to deal with,” Rayfield said. “And our administration is stepping up to the plate in order to give us the opportunity to play on this amazing field with this amazing scoreboard. There will be some logistical things to deal with. But I think for us, once the game starts, the environment to play a soccer game on is going to be world class.”

The move to the new field for games makes it easier to start some of the construction, even though the Illini still practice on their old field inside the track for now. They’ll move to their new, adjacent practice field in about a month, which will allow the track and infield to be torn out for new construction set to be completed for the 2021 track season.

Rayfield isn’t complaining about the early move, which was always planned.

“We’ve got this great surface, and this senior class deserves the opportunity to play on it and not sit and look at it for the end of this season,” she said. “It’s ready to go, and I think the administration has stepped up to the plate to do what they can logistically to give this team an opportunity to compete on it.”

News-Gazette