Illinois women’s soccer club seeks national title


Puffs of breath float away into the air, mixing with leaves that have blown from trees and are now scattered across the turf. Under the glow of the moon and the remaining lights, the Illinois women’s soccer club team is the sole body left at the campus recreation practice fields.


As coach Tom Sahajdack emulates the sound of a whistle, the players rotate and each take three penalty kicks until the last member makes her final shot and elongated shrieks of the word “goal” are heard.

The lighthearted celebratory screams break the cry of the wind that had overshadowed the sounds of the whoosh of the ball reaching the net or the thud of the goalie hitting the hard turf.

Finishing practice with these kicks, the team is making final tweaks before it contends for a national title in the Championship Division at the NIRSA National Soccer Championships in Phoenix, Ariz., this week.

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Penalty kicks cost the team first place at last year’s Open Division tournament against James Madison University.

However, with a strong core group of seniors and a higher division to compete in, this year is different for the team.

“The girls are out here in six layers, barely able to move sometimes,” Sahajdack said. “It was so cold this past week. There are teams out there able to practice in 60s year round. But we’re going to be a little tougher cause we’re willing to work that much harder. Girls are willing to come out in 25 degrees to play and improve.”

Under the leadership of seniors Erin Karner, Stephanie Sullivan, Valentina Ricupati and Michelle Wong, who have played together since their freshman year, there is a confidence in a team that is strong in talent and drive.

“It’s been pretty amazing,” Ricupati said. “It’s been awesome to have us four together to the end because there have been people who have come and gone. This year I honestly think that we have one of the best teams of my four years here because of our core group.”

Crowned champions of the Open Division their freshman year, these four have witnessed the program’s growth as they won big, but then struggled their sophomore season with a new coach who didn’t really understand the team’s dynamic.

Together for their final season, the quartet’s goal for the team was a high one: earning a bid to the Championship Division, instead of the Open Division, at nationals. 

The Championship Division is more competitive than the Open, Sahajdak compared the disparity to that of the NCAA Tournament and the NIT Tournament.

The entire season saw the girls preparing both physically and mentally. Whether it was reiterating their team’s goal after every practice or exchanging inspirational quotes before each game, the seniors found new ways to spark a competitive spirit.

“Being president has put me in leadership role that I’ve really enjoyed,” said team president Karner. “I love it. I feel like the mom of the team. I feel like I’ve taken girls under my wing and just try to make the team as motivated as we can both mentally and physically.”

While the seniors have stepped up, Sahajdack has also helped the team be the best they can be.

“Tom (Sahajdack) is great,” Karner said. “He definitely implements new types of drills and keeps practices fresh. He really notices specific things during games that he can help us improve on during practice. It’s definitely not stagnant and it’s really motivating for us.”

A fourth year Ph.D. student in economics, Sahajdack has experience both playing and coaching club soccer during his undergraduate years at Arizona State. He also currently plays on the Illinois men’s club soccer team.

The perspective he adds having played club soccer and the consistency of him staying another year to coach have provided a foundation for a strong team.

“I’m lucky as a coach because the girls work really hard,” Sahajdack said. “I don’t have to do a lot to motivate. They are always ready to work and ready to play. That kind of preparation has paid off.”

The Illinois women’s club soccer team finished the regular season 9-1, giving them the No. 2 power ranked spot in the Midwest, behind Ohio State. This ranking also gave them a bid to the Championship Division at nationals.

At the Nov. 2-3 regionals tournament in Columbus, Ohio, the team won its group in pool play and tied for third place after losing to Dayton in the semifinals. But, during pool play, the team beat the No. 1 Midwest team, Ohio State.

With the No. 2 power ranking, the Illini were able to use regionals as practice before the national tournament. In its pool play at nationals, Illinois will face Califonia Polytechnic and the Colorado “Gold” team.

The 70-degree temperatures and sunshine will be a far cry from the freezing cold in which the team has been practicing. Yet, the Illini seniors who’ve been through the ups and downs know the potential of the team and won’t let missed penalty kicks stop them from reaching their goal like last year. 

“Every day I come to practice and every day its kind of it’s like: ‘Ugh, practice again,’” Sullivan said. “I always laugh with my friends that I dread going to practice, and I come home with the biggest smile on my face. It’s hard once you get there, but once you get back you’re like: ‘Yeah, I am loving it.’”

Charlotte can be reached at [email protected].