The American women are one victory away from their first World Cup championship since 1999. Although some of her strategy has drawn criticism, the fact is that Ellis’ women are minutes from a monumental achievement.
The championship game, against Japan, will be played Sunday night at 7 at the BC Palace in Vancouver, Canada. A campus watch party is being held Sunday night at Tucker Hall. All are invited to attend.
Her former coach, John Daly, and ex-teammates Nancy Reinisch O’Toole ’88 and Julie Cunningham Shackford ’88, have seen firsthand Ellis’ ability to create success for herself and for those around her.
Daly, who just completed his 29th season with the Tribe, described Ellis as a lanky player with a long stride – “like a gazelle.” He is fond of recalling a moment of personal brilliance that resulted in an Ellis goal against George Mason.
“She got a ball at the halfway line and used the sole of her foot to pull the ball back and push it past the opposing player,” he recalled. “Then she accelerated towards goal and cracked the ball into the top corner. It was spectacular.”
There were enough such moments that Ellis graduated as the all-time leading scorer in Tribe women’s soccer history, a mark that has since been eclipsed.
While impressed with Ellis’ skill, O’Toole recalled her cerebral approach to the game. They played on the left side together, which lent itself to many helpful conversations.
“Jill was this very unique player who had the ability to coach her teammates in a way that people listened to her,” O’Toole said. “During the game she’d say, ‘Nance, why don’t you try x, y or z,’ and I’d do it. You respected what she had to say. She just has a very special way of communicating, which was apparent to me back then.
“Jill also had knowledge of the game unlike any player I knew. She just really has an uncanny understanding of the tactics and strategy of the game. It certainly came from her being on soccer fields with her dad growing up.”
John Ellis, a former commando in the British Royal Marine Corps, spent his career promoting soccer as a player and a coach of English club teams. He gained the reputation for mentoring some of the top female soccer minds in the United States.
After moving the family England to Virginia in 1980, John Ellis founded a camp and instruction company called Soccer Academy, Inc. Now retired, the company is run by his son, Paul.
“She was always passionate about soccer,” Daly said. “It was in her blood.”
Shackford, who played for John Ellis in Northern Virginia, told USA Today that John “just has an aura about him. He has a twinkle in his eye, a spring in his step, and he endears people to him.”
Recently retired as Princeton’s women’s soccer coach, Shackford called Jill Ellis “my best friend,” and said she sees a lot of her father’s traits in her fellow alumna.
“Her father was an amazing leader, a very charismatic leader, and she has a lot of him in her,” said Shackford. “I think she always had (the ability to be an elite coach) in her, but it’s been an evolution.
“She’s grown into her role. She was pretty reserved (in college). . . . She was always a leader by how she played and was really easy to relate to. She always had good ideas, but she wasn’t like a (Kentucky basketball coach) John Calipari-type of personality.”
That evolution involved stints at Illinois and UCLA, where she led teams to the NCAA Final Four eight times.
“She’s shown herself to be a very sophisticated coach,” Daly said. “She’s put her time in as an assistant at N.C. State, Maryland, Virginia, as a head coach, as an international assistant and as a head coach. She’s learned from every coach she’s ever worked with.”
Daly and Shackford are nonplussed by the criticism Ellis and her strategy have received from what Daly called “supposed experts.” Shackford even wondered whether the same criticism would be leveled against a male coach.
“I think it’s a little unfair, some of the criticism,” she said. “But she was smart enough to know she was walking into that.”
Daly calls the media shots “Bull.”
“They say we’re not technical, that we don’t play pretty,” he said. “There’s more than one way to play, same as in American football. In football, you’ve got a running team and a passing team. If the passing doesn’t work — and you can’t run it — you’re probably going to lose. And if your running doesn’t work — and you can’t pass it — you’re probably going to lose.
“What I love about the way Jill has the team going is she has a mix (of styles). . . . To me, that is the mark of a good coach.”
Japan, Daly said, is probably best in the world at setting up its offense. To win, the U.S. women must be disruptive Sunday night.
“They must pressure Japan at midfield; if you allow them to settle the ball, they can kill you,” he said. “I think Jill’s preparation will be to press them at midfield, press them up top, and deny them the time to get into their rhythm. I’m certain she’ll have a terrific plan.”