MOUNT CARMEL, Ill. -- For many years the Wabash Valley College soccer field has remained unused by the college, its sole use by the Junior Ace soccer teams and Mount Carmel High School boys and girls teams -- that's all set to change in the fall of 2019.
The NJCAA approved a women's soccer team for Wabash Valley College, which will officially start in the fall of 2019, just a year after volleyball returned to Wabash Valley for the first time since 2002. The two sports were added at the request of Wabash Valley College President, Dr. Matt Fowler.
"Approximately two to three years ago, Dr. Fowler, our president, wanted me to research adding a sport," Wabash Valley College Athletic Director Mike Carpenter said. "We crunched numbers and looked at travel, cost, budget and all of that. We came to the conclusion at that time that the best sport to add would be volleyball. Which we added this year to start, it was a great deal for our campus to have volleyball back. Along with that Lincoln Trail was in the process of starting women's soccer and there's some other schools in our conference that have women's soccer. Dr. Fowler wanted to add it as well, got the ball rolling there, it comes down to we don't want to start sports that don't make sense financially, especially when it comes to traveling.
Wabash Valley College may have new sports debuting in consecutive seasons for the first time ever, pending the recruiting going as head coach Patrick Harris envisions.
Hailing from Edwards County, Harris has an extended soccer background, playing high school and collegiate soccer. Harris took a job as an academic advisor at Wabash Valley knowing there was a possibility that the program would be a club team instead of a NJCAA Division I team. Harris was ok with that possibility, but remained optimistic that they would receive approval.
If the plans for the fall debut fail for whatever reason, it won't be due to a lack of effort on Harris' part. Harris has traveled to numerous soccer showcases across the country recruiting girls, keeping his eye on prospective talent who may want the opportunity to compete for the soon to be first year program. He hopes to have an assistant coach in the near future, but for now it's just him on the trail, which could be a good thing to some extent.
"I've been out every week night to go recruiting, every weekend ...," Harris said. "For the success of the program I have to be out and I want to do that. I have a two-year-old right now and a one-month-old. Eventually they're going to be sitting in the same chairs these girls are and I want them to have the same opportunity and be spoken to the same way from a head coach. It's one thing coming from an assistant, it's another when the head coach says, you know what kiddo, you're the real stuff."
Harris remains uniquely qualified for the position. He's been in the situation of starting a new program, familiarizing himself with many of the challenges that come with a new program. Not many coaches have that kind of unique experience.
"I know all the hoops and hurdles that you have to jump through in order to get there and be successful," Harris said. "Those are growing pains, we're going to get through that together. Not many college athletes are going to be able to stamp on their resume, we started a program and we did pretty good. Who's to say we won't do any better?"
Coming from an NCAA Division II program, Harris has had to adjust some in NJCAA. Fortunately he says Carpenter has been a tremendous resource for him and remained very understanding of Harris' plight.
"It's a lot of work, a lot of planning, he's a first-year coach so answering a lot of questions for him, walking him through the process. There's a lot on our plate here and I have to worry about basketball at some point too. I've been real pleased with coach Colvin and the job he did with the volleyball team this year, I think it's going in the right direction. Our softball, baseball and basketball teams here are doing great. Things are on the upswing here at Wabash Valley."
Recruiting for a first-year program seems like a tricky proposition to those outside Wabash Valley College. With no program history to point to and many question marks. What's your pitch going to be? How can you sell girls on this opportunity? Harris believes the sell is a lot easier than one thinks and it really is a resounding pitch.
"It's a once in a lifetime opportunity. Some of these recruits have been to multiple campuses, have seen multiple programs and camps and things, but they'll never be a part of something where they're building it from the ground on .... There's an easy sell, at least for girls, they know that academics are going to be taken care of. That's probably been the biggest concern with kids I'm talking to. Well, it's a junior college, yeah it's a junior college, but in the title it says college. It's higher education, it's not going to be a walk in the park and it shouldn't be. If this was high school soccer it would say high school soccer, it's NJCAA Division I soccer, it's no longer your high school team and it shouldn't be, otherwise I'm doing you a disservice."
Harris noted that any girls who choose to attend Wabash Valley College have the opportunity to create records immediately, a potentially really attractive option to many girls and an opportunity to leave a lasting impact on a program.
In addition to those points, Harris has coached several women who have went on to have pro careers. Another attractive resume booster for the program.
"I also typically tell kids, I've been doing this for five years now," Harris said. "I know what it takes to get to the next level, Division I, Division II, professionally, I've had girls at the previous school gone on and played professionally at places in Europe and a girl against the U.S. Women's National Team on ESPN2, I don't know if many coaches have that kind of experience where I had the opportunity at the previous school, where the girl played for the Trinidad and Tobago National Team and has a picture with Carli Lloyd, Alex Morgan and played against the U.S. National Team. So I know what stages it takes to move on to wherever it may be. Whatever a girl has her heart set on doing, we can provide that opportunity for them."
The program officially announced the signing three girls in the winter signing period in November -- Kaylee Thaler, Kylee Luce and Kenna Langenhorst -- There are likely some girls who are committed to WVC but did not sign in the early period as well. WVC is likely to fill a roster of nearly 30 girls according to Carpenter.
The timing seems perfect for Wabash Valley College to announce the arrival of the program, as Mount Carmel High School started a girls soccer team just a year ago, coached by Ed Berberich. Harris knows he has to maintain the pipeline within the city and get the community involved, allotting the two programs a tremendous opportunity and connection.
"We're really laying the foundation for the what the future holds for soccer in Wabash Valley College and the local community," Harris said. "I know within the past year the high school started a girls team, we're going to use them, we need them to be a part of us. We're going to support them in any way, shape or form that we can because that's part of our community."
Harris knows part of his job is to push soccer as a sport in Mount Carmel and the surrounding areas -- which are very football oriented. It's easy to see soccer as a rising sport in the U.S. though, as well as Mount Carmel. The expansion of college soccer in Wabash Valley validates that.
"Part of my responsibility as a head coach, especially with soccer is to create a certain kind of culture," Harris said. "I want to build a culture not only on campus, but in the community. This town, Mount Carmel, but also the surrounding area and the residing communities begin to see that soccer is definitely on the rise."
Among many uncertainties, what will Wabash Valley soccer's schedule be like? Many GRAC and Region 24 teams don't have a women's soccer program, though a select few do. Harris intends on scheduling the schools in the region that do have programs, possibly to play each opponent twice next season.
They'll face a stout challenge against one region opponent, Lewis and Clark. The Pioneers are a NJCAA power in women's soccer, sitting as one of the best teams in the nation each year. The opportunity to play against such quality competition is another point Harris is selling to recruits.
"We're going to be competing against some of the best teams in the country and I want kids that are up to it," Harris spoke of the competition. "If they're not, we're going to hit that bump in the road. I think those things are to be expected because if it doesn't challenge you it doesn't change you, but I don't think anyone's expecting us to go undefeated and win the National Tournament. Would I love that, you can quote me on that, I would love to win the National Tournament year one in a brand new program. I think that would be saying something, that would be an exceptional and incredible event. Is that likely? Probably not. But why not go for it?"
Will the cycle of new programs coming to Wabash Valley College continue? Carpenter says they don't have any plans for any -- at least in the near future. The college will be focusing on facility upgrades for its existing programs for now.
"Never want to rule it out, but it's hard with our location," Carpenter said. "A lot of schools in our conference don't have some of those four major sports. There's metropolitan areas around here that have junior colleges so you have to be careful that you don't add them just to add them, it has to make sense."
They have ran into the issue of finding housing options for the prospective student-athletes. If any people in Mount Carmel know of any apartment options or renting opportunities, contact Carpenter. His contact information can be found on Wabash Valley College's website.