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Freshman midfielder Drew Conner, who hails from Cary, Ill., has started 16 of the Badgers’ 17 games this season and is one of 9 players on the team from Wisconsin’s neighbor to the south.[/media-credit]

At the University of Wisconsin, recruiting is a funny thing. Men’s basketball coach Bo Ryan has had his greatest success siphoning a long list of Wisconsin players from Minnesota. Jon Leuer, Jordan Taylor, Jared Berggren, the list goes on. Football coach Bret Bielema has seen some of his best players emerge as walk-ons from in-state. J.J. Watt, Mark Tauscher, Luke Swan and Chris Maragos headline a similarly lengthy list.

Men’s soccer on the other hand, presents a bit different of a story. This story surrounds Wisconsin’s neighbor to the south, the state of Illinois.

A quick glance at the UW men’s soccer roster reveals players from all over the nation and even Ontario and Denmark. Nine players claim Illinois as home, the highest total of any state on the roster, tied for just as many as Wisconsin. David Caban could be considered a tenth, as he played academy soccer in Chicago.

It’s easy to understand, the Illinois-Wisconsin border is less than 60 miles away from Madison. But a deeper look into those nine players shows just how important Illinois is to Wisconsin soccer.

Five players have scored multiple goals for the Badgers this season – Chris Prince, Jerry Maddi, Jacob Brindle, Drew Conner and Nick Janus. All of them are from Illinois.

Badgers from Illinois have scored two out of every three Wisconsin goals this season and have tallied 12 of the team’s 20 assists. Earlier in the season, only four players from Illinois started for the Badgers. Now six do. 

Indeed, for Wisconsin men’s soccer, Illinois is a pretty big deal.

“I’ve said it to people, ‘Look at our starting lineup’,” head coach John Trask said. “I think seven of our eleven [have played in] the Chicago-land area, and some of our top reserves…They’re all important pieces of the team.”

The stats don’t lie. Players from Illinois have logged 45 percent of the available minutes for the Badgers this year. They are represented as forwards, midfielders and defenders. The only position that Illinois doesn’t have a grasp of is goaltender.

But it isn’t just a players-only thing. Illinois can even claim Trask as a one-time mainstay.

Before becoming UW’s head coach in 2010, Trask was the head coach at Illinois-Chicago for five seasons, winning the Horizon League in 2006 and 2008. Trask was also an assistant coach at Indiana University for nine seasons from 1991 to 1999, noting that he recruited the region for a long time, and with much success.

“We are very close with the three [major soccer] clubs in the area…I’ve known the guys that run those clubs for a very long time,” Trask said. “We used to recruit [the area] a lot while I was at Indiana, at UIC I recruited a lot…it makes sense to go after the Drew Conner’s of the world.”

Conner, a freshman midfielder, is just the latest installment of success to arrive in Madison from Illinois. The Gatorade Player of the Year from Illinois a year ago, Conner grew up in Cary, Ill., and played for the Chicago Fire Youth Soccer Academy.

Junior Nick Janus is just 10 miles down the road in Deer Park, Ill., and junior Trevor Wheeler, another midfielder and Chicago Fire alum, calls Arlington Heights, Ill. home, just five miles south of Janus.

Kyle McCrudden, senior captain and former Chicago Fire member, lives just 15 miles east of Wheeler while Prince, Maddi, and Brindle all reside another 15 miles south in the Naperville, Ill. region. All three are also former members of the Chicago Fire.

Chicago and Illinois have become a pipeline for Wisconsin soccer. Each connection from the region selecting Wisconsin solidifies the thoughts of any others thinking on the brink.

“The fact that this coaching staff is attracting high quality players from Chicago was something that I was interested in,” Conner said. “It was nice knowing three or four guys that I had played with made it a lot easier to adjust to the new team.”

The group from south of Wisconsin is many times singled out in practice for being just that, Illinois citizens. When Trask and his coaching staff line up drills in practice, one of the easiest ways to split the teams up seems to be where they all originally came from.

“We do activities where we call them the FIB’ers – you know – the Illinois bastards against the other guys,” Trask said. “We ham that up but we think it’s a good situation.”

The rivalry is clearly an amusing one for the coaching staff. Its frequent use in practice separates the squad, along with their loyalties to professional football teams.

“Especially this season, we’ve been giving [Ryan] Buda some dirt about the Packers at the beginning of the season,” Prince said. “But it goes back and forth…I know we enjoy it.”

At the end of the day, however, very little could separate this team – not even home states or NFL allegiances.

As practice closed Tuesday, McCrudden, the Wilmette-native (just 20 miles north of Soldier Field), launched a 40-yard pass to Buda, a native of Stevens Point, Wis., which barely floated over the outstretched fingers of Prince, a noted Chicago Bears fan.

A Chicago suburb citizen, throwing to a Packers fan, beating a Bears fan. Now that’s something any state can enjoy.