Luke DeCock

Ellis’ path to U.S. bench began at N.C. State

U.S. Women’s National Team head coach Jill Ellis talks with Amy Rodriguez in the second half against Sweden in the FIFA Women's World Cup Canada 2015 match at Winnipeg Stadium on June 12, 2015 in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada.
U.S. Women’s National Team head coach Jill Ellis talks with Amy Rodriguez in the second half against Sweden in the FIFA Women's World Cup Canada 2015 match at Winnipeg Stadium on June 12, 2015 in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. GETTY

When Larry Gross watches Jill Ellis on the bench coaching the U.S. Women’s National team, he doesn’t see a woman who has shrugged off immense pressure to bring the Americans to the brink of another World Cup. He still sees the 22-year-old he hired as an assistant coach at N.C. State after she tormented the Wolfpack while playing for William & Mary, especially after Tuesday’s semifinal victory over Germany.

“The side of her I still remember is at the end of the game when she was jumping around and so excited, as opposed to the calm demeanor as the game was going on,” Gross said. “For about eight seconds she looked like Jimmy V after he won the national championship.”

The U.S. Women’s National Team has no shortage of connections to North Carolina, which has traditionally supplied the majority of its players. It also has one little-known N.C. State connection.

Ellis’ path to Sunday’s World Cup final against Japan began at N.C. State in 1988 as a part-time graduate assistant, the daughter of an Englishman who came to the United States spreading the soccer gospel.

Her arrival at N.C. State coincided with the Wolfpack’s apex in women’s socccer – the school’s only ACC championship in the sport and a trip to the national championship game, where N.C. State lost to North Carolina in Chapel Hill. A year later, the Wolfpack made it back to the final four on its home field, only to lose to the eventual champion Tar Heels again.

“We really had it rolling back then and she was a big part of it,” Gross said.

“She was great for our team chemistry,” said Charmaine Hooper, the star of those teams and a 2014 inductee into the N.C. State Athletic Hall of Fame. “She brought a different flavor to our team, something we never had before. The girls really liked her and what she brought to the team, as far as a different coaching style and different knowledge.”

After getting her master’s in technical writing, Ellis left N.C. State in 1990 for a job at Nortel, but she never could shake the soccer bug. In 1994, she got back into coaching as an assistant to future national-team coach April Heinrichs at Maryland. She followed Heinrichs to Virginia before taking the head coaching job at Illinois. Her greatest success came in 11 seasons at UCLA that included seven College Cup appearances, including four at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary.

That led to Ellis’ involvement with U.S. Soccer, and eventually to her elevation into the head women’s job as first interim and then permanent coach last spring. In the face of relentless criticism, Ellis has delivered the Americans back to a rematch with Japan, which four years ago defeated the United States on penalty kicks.

“It’s not a surprise one bit she has reached the level that she has in U.S. soccer and really world soccer,” said Laura Kerrigan, who was a senior during Ellis’ first season at N.C. State and would later coach the Wolfpack. “She really is an amazing coach. Her decisions over the last couple weeks, with the media and commentators telling her all the things she should do, just show how well she knows those players.”

Ellis has carefully managed her personnel during the World Cup, an issue with the U.S. team in the past, even if the team’s style hasn’t always been the most elegant. Her modern, data-driven approach to the U.S. team, relying heavily on emerging soccer analytics, is nothing new, either. Gross remembers a tournament in Virginia, played on what he called “garbage” fields, where Ellis asked her brother to chart giveaways while sitting in the stands. At halftime, armed with the stats, she approached Gross to suggest unexpected changes.

“These were small, bumpy fields with very little grass, and yet she came up at halftime and said, so-and-so was giving away too many balls, ‘X’ number of balls,” Gross said. “That led me to believe there was something there that was over and above. She was very, very organized.”

Ellis is still managing less-than-ideal field conditions – Sunday’s final in Vancouver will be contested on artificial turf, a travesty – but the circumstances are slightly different, the stakes slightly higher. Ellis has a chance to put the United States back on top in women’s soccer, 25 years after she helped N.C. State to its greatest success.

DeCock: ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock, 919-829-8947

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