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If William & Mary women’s soccer coach John Daly hadn’t offered a $5,000 scholarship to a rising senior from England in 1987, the recent fortunes of the U.S. National Women’s soccer team might have been radically different.
“[Daly] didn’t realize that the scholarship he offered me was a third of my family’s yearly income,” Jill Ellis said Saturday in her commencement address to her alma mater’s Class of 2016.
“That blessing allowed an immigrant family the funds to secure a green card,” Ellis said. “Until today, he didn’t realize that.”
As a W&M senior, Ellis was named a third-team All-American. After three years being eliminated in the first round, the Ellis-led Tribe advanced to the NCAA Elite Eight. She graduated as the school’s all-time leading scorer with 32 goals, a record that has since been surpassed.
Kinesiology professor John Charles, who founded the W&M team, was in the audience Saturday, as was Daly, who was named an honorary alumnus. Charles recruited Ellis out of Northern Virginia and was her coach those first three seasons. He said he quickly saw Ellis’ potential as a head coach.
“She was a joy to be around,” he said. “She understood the game and had a great way of working with people. She was a good listener and always responded to people in a positive way. She was competitive but never had an ego. I saw her leadership at the time and the possibilities of her being a great coach.”
That’s not what Ellis told the graduates on Saturday.
“I never started out even wanting to be a coach,” she said. “Back then it was not a solid career choice. Security and salary were lacking in female sports, and actually there is still a lot of room for improvement.
“At 23, I became a technical writer, working for a large corporation — had a mortgage, Acura and felt I was doing quite well for myself,” Ellis said. “Then I got a job offer to become an assistant soccer coach at the University of Maryland for $6,000 a year. Well, my mother was absolutely frickin’ horrified. My dad, a coach, was like, ‘Go for it.’ I took a leap of faith and followed passion over paycheck.
“Retrospectively, I think passion steered me towards this journey. At every major juncture in my life I realized that I chose the route that appeared to be less comfortable, with higher risk.”
Ellis left Maryland to become the head coach at UCLA, where she spent 12 seasons and “could have settled in and planned to retire, but I was ready to gain a new perspective.”
She told the 1,662 W&M graduates that her goal is to make history, to guide the first team ever to win the World Cup and an Olympic gold medal.
“When I met with my team in January of this year, I said to them, ‘Congratulations, you got to the summit of your sport last summer,’ ” Ellis recalled. “ ‘But there is a reason why summits are small and the air is thin, because you cannot dwell on a summit. No one hangs out on top of Everest for a week. You get up there, enjoy the view briefly, and move on.’
“I am moving on.”