Monday, October 13, 2008
Trask engineers remarkable turnaround at UIC
Maria Burns Ortiz
John Trask remembers what it was like when he took the reins at the University of Illinois-Chicago men's soccer program in 2005.
Freshman midfielder Julian Serrato has stepped right into UIC's starting lineup. (UIC Athletics/Steve Woltmann/Other)
The program had finished the previous season 5-12-2. Recruits wouldn't return his calls. The Flames weren't considered much of a contender in the Horizon League, let alone the nation. When it came to attendance, the official box-score tallies of 200 or so spectators seemed extremely optimistic.
As anyone that witnessed UIC play last year's national champion runner-up No. 17 Ohio State to a scoreless draw Oct. 8 can attest, times have changed.
"To think there used to be 20 people in the stands, and now to see 2,500, you're a proud papa of what's been accomplished," Trask said.
Just like the team's attendance -- which has increased by some 700 percent -- the team's list of accomplishments continues to grow. The Flames (8-1-4) are ranked No. 7 in the nation and were undefeated until a 1-0 loss at Butler on Saturday afternoon. But more importantly, the team has proved that its success -- a spot in last year's Elite Eight -- was not a one-time fluke, but a steady progression.
"To come from where we did and now to see where we are as a program it seems like every facet of the program -- the way we perform, the way we're treated on campus, our fans -- it's all progressing a lot quicker and at a lot higher level than probably I anticipated when I took the job," Trask said.
After going 10-5-2 in Trask's first season but failing to make the NCAA tournament, the Flames advanced to the round of 32 in 2006, falling to Big East power Notre Dame and setting the stage for 2007. What made last year's postseason run even more impressive was the fact that UIC played every game on the road, notching wins at Saint Louis, Northwestern and Creighton before losing to the University of Massachusetts in the Minutemen's improbable run.
But unlike UMass (and so many other Cinderellas), the Flames are establishing themselves as a perennial threat.
"I think some programs get to that level [of the NCAA tournament] and they're happy they got there once," Trask said. "If you look at some of the teams that did well last year, be it Bradley or UMass, and you look at where they are right now, in comparison to us, we seem to relish the fact that we're quote-unquote a big-time program these days."
While UIC might not necessarily be one of the first schools to pop into people's minds as a soccer powerhouse, the way Indiana (Trask's alma mater) or a number of ACC schools do, it's hard to name many programs that have been more competitive as of late.
"We've built up our own style, and that's a crucial part UIC has and the reason we attract all the good players from across the county," junior goalkeeper Jovan Bubonja said. "We really want to win. We're not satisfied just to be ranked or to be hosting one or two big games a season. It's very important that we've built our own identity.
"That [consistent style of play] is what the big teams have -- and it's the same, home or away, under pressure or with no pressure. And at UIC, that's the identity we have."
Though the identity may be evolving, the approach is still the same.
"We're just focusing on doing the right thing at the right time, not looking too far ahead," junior forward Baggio Husidic said. " We're taking it minute by minute during the game."
That focus is producing results -- which is what it takes to get prospective players to buy in. Trask admits that during his first year or two, UIC was probably most players' second choice. The Flames had strong international and Chicago-area representation, but often, when the coaching staff reached out to some of the nation's top recruits, they never heard back. They no longer have that problem.
Freshman Julian Serrato, a men's national team U-18 pool player, from Boca Raton, Fla., admits he didn't grow up dreaming about playing collegiate soccer for the Flames, but when it came time to choose a school, UIC stood out among the rest.
"Last season and the season before have been a key factor of why I came here," Serrato said. "Bottom line, I wanted to just improve my game, and [Trask] told me this is where I could improve and keep going forward. The team was very strong, and we had a chance to go to the Final Four and win the national title. That's what I wanted."
The fact that playing into mid-December is not just a possibility for UIC, but an expectation, really resonates with Bubonja.
"When I came, three years ago, I had mixed feelings," the goalkeeper said.
Trask laid it all out -- he'd inherited a program that would take some building, but he was positive the team had the ability to do big things.
"I knew we were going to get far, because Coach believed in it," Bubonja said. "We worked during practice. Now it's way different. We have bigger goals."Maria Burns Ortiz covers college soccer for ESPNsoccernet. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.