IIT Men's Soccer on the Move

By Christopher Darnielle
IIT Men's Soccer on the Move
Graeme Port, IIT soccer striker and NAIA All-American

Soccer on the South Side of Chicago? What’s next, a construction-free Dan Ryan expressway? Believe it or not, both of these seeming oddities are a reality for IIT’s student body this fall. And fortunately for the growing number of fans of the IIT men’s soccer team, the best seats to be had aren’t from traffic jams on the Dan Ryan, but rather a stone’s throw away at beautifully manicured Stuart Field.

Although IIT’s men’s soccer program is entering only its sixth season of existence this fall, Head Coach Lee Hitchen isn’t settling for platitudes like “growth” or “improvement”—he wants to win, and win immediately. “When we first started it was, ‘Okay, here comes the geek squad, let’s put our second team on the field, get some goals, and get a win under our belt,’” he says with a laugh. “In the past we were a guaranteed win, but now these teams get beat, and they don't like it.”

Winning has become something of a habit for IIT, which finished with a 9-5-4 record last season. In fact, were it not for a miracle last-minute header by Judson University striker Leonardo Silva, the Scarlet Hawks would have captured their first Chicagoland Collegiate Athletics Conference (CCAC) title and an automatic birth in the NAIA regionals. Instead, largely because of a cryptic NAIA rating system called “longo points,” the team was bounced from the regionals into a rematch with Olivet Nazarene in the CCAC tournament, which resulted in a season-ending 2-1 loss.

If anyone is still dwelling on last season’s disappointing finish, they’re not letting on. “When I first came in, the team was made up of a bunch of guys who just liked to play soccer,” says redshirt Andrew John Lichaj (BA, 3rd year) of the team’s evolution. “Now the team is full of guys that have all played at a high level, and Coach Hitchen has done a great job of recruiting; every year we get better.”

Edward Vucinic, head coach of conference rival St. Xavier University, calls the Scarlet Hawks’ improvement “impressive.” He adds, “They’ve become an upper-echelon team, the kind you have to fight for 90 minutes.”

“We’re bringing in players from all over the world—the U.K., Ireland, Australia, Brazil—which will increase the competition for places and force every player to work harder.” —Michael Tilatti (MMAE, 3rd year)

This kind of respect and peer recognition isn’t just flattering, it’s crucial to any collegiate coach’s recruiting efforts. As Hitchen explains, “Until you build your reputation, you can’t recruit top talent.” So Hitchen, a Brit with a background as a professional player for the Blackburn Rovers of the English Premier League, adopted a unique recruiting strategy. He began using his network of former coaches and teammates as an international recruiting network, with the hopes that assembling a cast of seasoned international players would help him attract some of Chicago’s plentiful youth talent.

This brings with it entirely different challenges—challenges that your average coach in the United States, accustomed to soccer as a sport of the largely affluent suburban set, isn’t used to dealing with. “The problem is that everywhere else in the world, nine times out of 10, these players are working-class kids who do not have the finances to support a $35,000 a year education, especially when in their home countries, school is largely free,” he says. His approach is paying dividends: Hitchen’s roster boasts 11 international student-athletes from locales as far-flung as England, Scotland, Brazil, Australia, Venezuela, and Spain as well as six returning players from the Chicago area.

As Hitchen points out, recruiting is further complicated by two other major factors: IIT’s sterling academic standards and the specialization of the university’s scientific disciplines. “I don’t think people realize just how small the pool of candidates actually is,” he says. “I could walk into any game of senior high-school athletes and say, ‘That kid’s awesome, I want him.’ If I were at any other university, I could probably get him. But I can’t do that here. The first step is, okay, what are his grades? I don’t even know his name yet, but I’m asking, ‘What are his grades?’ And then you have to hope that he wants to be an engineer, or a scientist, or an architect.”

“We are competing not just against conference schools, but also schools like Northwestern, Drexel, and Carnegie Mellon,” he says—universities that IIT will likely never even face on the playing field.

Additionally, the NAIA’s relatively low admission requirements for athletes don’t do IIT any favors. “Academic standards for the NAIA are way below our standards,” Hitchen says, and he’s not kidding: NAIA student-athletes are not required to take the SAT or ACT exams as long as they graduate in the top half of their high-school class. This is a decided edge in favor of most of IIT’s competitors.

Despite the rigors of being student-athletes at a demanding university like IIT, Hitchen’s recruits have more than held their own, maintaining a 3.2 GPA last season; in fact, no student in the team’s five-year history has been disqualified from the program for academic reasons. Michael Tilatti (MMAE, 4th year) is perhaps the best example of the successful union between academics and athletics that Hitchen has achieved; the goalkeeper carries a 3.88 GPA while studying aerospace engineering. “The key is good time management,” Tilatti says. “You need to be disciplined; there is not a lot of time to fool around. IIT is very difficult, but there is still time to finish your work if you manage your time right.”

Academics aside, it’s hard not to admire the talent that Hitchen has assembled in such a short amount of time. Striker Graeme Port (HUM, 2nd year), a sophomore from Scotland, took the league by storm last season, scoring a remarkable 10 goals en route to being named both an NAIA All-American (the first such nomination in the history of IIT men’s soccer) and CCAC Freshman of the Year. Additionally, midfielder Steven Booher (ARCH, 5th year), forward Pedro Lima (BA, 5th year), and defender Phillip Brierley (BA, 3rd year) earned All-Conference honors.

This year’s prospects look bright. “This team is going to improve immensely this season,” predicts goaltender Tilatti. “We’re bringing in players from all over the world—the U.K., Ireland, Australia, Brazil—which will increase the competition for places and force every player to work harder if they want to get on to the first team. This will only help the squad get better.”

Hitchen notes that the Scarlet Hawks’ recent success has attracted the notice of the two premiere youth soccer organizations in the Chicago area, which should help to provide an additional influx of fresh talent into the program. However, “It’s not enough success for me,” he says. “I want more, and I really think we’re on course to get there. We’ve raised the bar in the game. We’re not there yet, but we’re well on the way.”

The Scarlet Hawks opened the 2008 season with a road match against perennial NAIA powerhouse, University of Rio Grande (Ohio) on August 23; their first home contest was versus Viterbo University (Wisconsin) on August 27. For a complete 2008 season schedule, visit www.illinoistechathletics.com/schedule/6/4.php.

Q&A with NAIA All-American and CCAC Freshman of the Year Graeme Port

Describe your previous soccer experience.

I started playing soccer as soon as I could walk, just like everyone else back home [in Scotland]. I think I joined my first team when I was about 6. I played for various club teams when I was growing up and then progressed from there to play for several youth teams affiliated with professional clubs. When I heard about the opportunity to come to America, I jumped at the chance. It gives me the opportunity both to play soccer and continue my education, something that you can’t really do back in the U.K.

How did you manage to have such a great season while adjusting to life in the United States?

The transition was surprisingly easy for me. I guess being 21 helped a lot as I’d already been living away from my parents for a couple of years prior to coming to the States. Coach Hitchen set up everything for all the new players that came in, and the fact that I was living with two other British lads also helped a lot. The soccer team in general is a great bunch of lads.

Of all the universities you could have chosen, why did you choose IIT?

I had a couple of schools to choose from, but after I spoke with Coach Hitchen on the phone, there really was nowhere else that I wanted to go. The city of Chicago is a huge pull and having an English coach was also a big appeal for me. Coach Hitchen is a great coach and he really looks after all the lads both on and off the pitch. IIT is really lucky to have such a talented soccer team, and I just hope that this year we can finally win some titles to prove how good a side we actually have.

Do you hope to play soccer at the next level?

If I were given the chance to continue playing soccer after college I would definitely take it. The MLS [Major League Soccer] is improving all the time, and I would jump at the chance if given the opportunity to play in it. Playing in Europe would be great, but honestly I’d play almost anywhere if given the chance. Playing for Scotland might be a stretch too far though, as—contrary to popular belief—the team is actually quite good.