CARBONDALE — Division I independent women's soccer programs have to play at least 11 matches a year, but Southern Illinois University's new program is jumping in with both feet next fall.
Saluki athletic director Tommy Bell expects to play between 11 and 15 matches in 2019, when the program begins as an independent, as well as some exhibition games. Some of those could be against Division II teams as the program develops, he said, under a yet-to-be-named coach.
SIU is scheduled to begin competing in the nine-team Missouri Valley Conference in the fall of 2020.
"It'll take three years for us to get up and moving," Bell said. "The first they'll play as an independent, and then we'll play a Valley season in 2020, and the great thing about that is, that will give us eight matches built into the schedule, because there will be nine schools in the league. From a non-conference standpoint, you've got SEMO, Murray (State), but early on, in the first several years, we will probably play more D2s in non-conference than we will in conference."
Sister school SIU Edwardsville, Saint Louis University, Eastern Illinois and Western Kentucky give the Salukis several options for nonconference opponents within a four-hour radius. They'll also give SIU more teams to have to recruit against, but the Salukis could have a lot to sing about once they get going.
Saluki Stadium, the 15,000-seat football stadium that opened in 2010, will give SIU the biggest women's soccer facility in the Valley. The team will practice at the new track facility, which features a full-length soccer field and locker room, and compete at the football stadium, Bell said.
Most of the players in the Valley come from the Midwest, 10th-year Drake coach Lindsey Horner said, and SIU's program could keep some of the best players in the region closer to home.
"I think there's more opportunity to grow the game. I think that's a positive, just, add another team to the Valley," said Horner, who joined Drake's program in its second season as an assistant coach in 2003. "It's a different challenge, like adding Valparaiso this year. But it just changed the dynamics of the year, and you have to be better over the course of more games. Almost selfishly, the St. Louis-area players on our team, they can play closer to home once or twice a year."
Four of 11 first-team all-conference women's soccer players in the Valley were Illinois natives in 2017. Two second-team picks, including Marion High School grad Emily Dickman, were also from the Prairie State. One first-teamer, Northern Iowa forward Brynell Yount, was from Colorado. Two were from Wisconsin, three were from Kansas, and one was from Iowa.
There were 404 high school programs in Illinois in 2015-16, according to the Illinois High School Association, the sixth-most of any girls sport. More than 388,000 high school girls competed on 11,823 teams last school year, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. Girls soccer was the fourth-most popular sport, in terms of participation, and is very popular in Southern Illinois.
"I think it'll be extremely good, and not just for our program in Carbondale. We've had club teams that have lost some players," Carbondale High School girls soccer coach Ortez Davis said. "It could get more club teams going in the region. I think it'd be great to be able to see, at some point, some of our local athletes competing at the college level, locally."
Few women soccer players in the Valley come from other countries, Horner said, noting she had one player from Ontario, Canada. SIU will start behind most Valley teams in terms of the size of the roster, and the amount of money invested in the program. Bell said he expects to offer 8.4 scholarships for the program, far less than the NCAA max of 14.
Missouri State, which won the MVC Tournament last fall, had 28 players. Drake had 25, about the average in the Valley, according to Horner. SIU will have between 20-25 players in its first season, Bell said, between transfers, players from the SIU club team that want to play and recruits. Bell anticipates SIU will invest about $100,000 on new equipment, such as goals, safety netting and locker room equipment, and about $400,000 per year on the program.
The average Division I women's soccer program costs about $600,000 per year, according to data from the NCAA. SIU plans to hire a head coach and at least one assistant coach. The job closed in mid-February, and Bell hopes to have someone in place by the end of April.