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By Brian Burnsed
The metal bleachers, five rows deep and running the length of the freshly-mowed pitch, were hidden underneath a small army of spectators. The field was immaculate – cut low – free of divots and muddy blemishes. The students who arrived too late to find a spot along the sidelines found perches on a grassy slope overlooking one of the goals. The setting proved ideal for a pair of Division I soccer games.
But the setting was a Division III soccer field.
On Sunday, Aug. 19, Trine University – a private school tucked in the northeast corner of Indiana – played host to men’s teams from Duke, Michigan State, Wisconsin and Evansville. The schools ventured to Trine for a pair of exhibition games – dubbed the Midwest Soccer Mix-Up – at the behest of Trine women’s soccer coach Terry Stefankiewicz, who organizes a premier preseason soccer tournament, the ShindigZ National Soccer Festival, which is held annually in nearby Ft. Wayne.
For more than a decade, Stefankiewicz has lured top college teams to Indiana to play a weekend of preseason games against other elite squads. Given Ft. Wayne’s proximity to Trine’s home in Angola, Stefankiewicz asked a few teams to make the 45-minute trip to put on a show for his school and the small town. The pair of exhibition games doubled as a fundraiser for the Trine women’s soccer team.
“We like to be the first at anything,” Stefankiewicz said. “We think we’re the first Division III school to host four Division I men’s soccer schools on campus. That’s an honor.”
The day, months in the making, proved to be a success. Though the forecast called for rain, temperatures hovered in the 70s and only a few clouds dotted the otherwise vibrant blue Indiana sky. Michigan State triumphed, 1-0, over Duke, and a late goal by Wisconsin earned the Badgers a 1-1 tie with Evansville. More importantly, nearly 600 people attended and the event raised $5,246 for the women’s team, thanks to ticket and concession sales and donations from local businesses. The funds will go toward a spring trip to a sunny locale – Florida, Costa Rica and Puerto Rico have been mentioned – to play soccer and build camaraderie on a team with slew of freshmen.
The day’s events began at 11:30, when legendary Indiana University soccer coach Jerry Yeagley addressed Trine’s incoming freshman class, members of which were in the midst of a weekend orientation. Yeagley, who coached Stefankiewicz at IU, spoke to a room of more than 500, imparting tales from his coaching days that exemplified diligence and honesty.
“What a great opportunity for a Division III school to be able to host something like this,” said Trine president Earl D. Brooks II. “The timing is great with move-in and freshmen orientation. Having an opportunity for someone like coach Yeagley to be here and address them makes it even better.”
When Stefankiewicz first raised the idea of creating the National Soccer Festival, Yeagley had doubts but leant his support nonetheless, saying IU would gladly take part. Thirteen years later, the festival is a resounding success – Mexican professional team Chivas played a nationally televised game against IU the night before the exhibitions at Trine – and Stefankiewicz turned to Yeagley again, asking him to give a speech and soak in a couple of DI games in an unlikely setting. Yeagley donated his $1,000 speaking fee to the Trine women’s team and the referees working the two games tossed in their game checks.
“Just like I said 13 years ago, I said, ‘Are you crazy?’ ” Yeagley said. “You’ve got a great thing going in Ft. Wayne. You’re taking a risk here…but it turned out super.”
Convincing elite soccer programs to play at a DIII school far from a major city seemed a daunting task, but the credibility Stefankiewicz built over the last decade made the idea feasible. His first call was to Duke head coach John Kerr.
“He’s a great guy, so I said no problem,” Kerr said. “I know it’s a big deal to the Trine University folks, so we’re happy to participate.”
Once Kerr was onboard, Stefankiewicz placed calls to other prominent coaches: Damon Rensing at Michigan State, Mike Jacobs at Evansville and John Trask at Wisconsin. Wisconsin, Michigan State and Duke already had games scheduled in Ft. Wayne and were happy to make the quick trek to Angola. Plus, a chance to square off against elite competition in preseason is always welcome, though some were wary of the venue.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” Trask said. “I didn’t know if we were going to come out and there was going to be a field out in the middle of nowhere. But the field is absolutely gorgeous; it has just been awesome.”
Players, too, were pleasantly surprised with the university that some of them hadn’t heard of.
“There were way more people here than I thought,” said Michigan State redshirt freshman Asa Miller. “It was actually a really nice field, good conditions.”
Members of Trine’s women’s team worked throughout the day. Some stood guard on the sidelines, chasing down errant balls and tossing them back in while others doled out concessions and tickets. Those who worked the sidelines said they were enthralled by the speed and physicality of the DI players. They also took note of the constant communication – often screaming – between teammates throughout the games. Spending a Sunday afternoon at work was a worthy sacrifice, they agreed.
“It was definitely worth it,” freshman Madeline Sabo said. “We’re going somewhere warm!”