VERMILLION — There were few, if any, surprises awaiting Kellee Willer when she decided on a new place to play soccer.
Sure, she was moving from Fayetteville, Arkansas (University of Arkansas) to small-town Vermillion (University of South Dakota), but it wasn’t as though Willer was suddenly in some new world.
No, the redshirt freshman midfielder had a previous connection to USD: Her older sister, Kylee, had previously played for the Coyotes.
“I had come to games before, when Kylee was here,” Willer said after Sunday’s 1-0 double overtime loss to North Dakota at USD’s new First Bank & Trust Complex. “So I knew what it was like.
“I knew what I was getting myself into,” she added with a smile.
And for the Willer sisters — there are three of them — that typically means playing high-level soccer.
The oldest, Koree, is a senior at Iowa State, where she was an All-Big 12 Conference selection last year. And Kylee played for the Coyotes (her senior season was 2014).
Meanwhile, in Kellee’s case, she chose Arkansas as her college destination out of high school. She redshirted last season for the Razorbacks, but eventually chose to leave — “it just wasn’t the right fit for me.”
From there, it didn’t long for USD to enter the picture.
“They were on my radar before,” Willer said. “It just seemed like the right fit here.
“I came on a visit and loved it; loved the town, the community and the team.”
Thrust into a situation (because she sat out last season) where she could play right away for the Coyotes, Willer had some catching up to do. Not only had she not played in a competitive game in almost a year and a half, she had to find her role within the USD scheme.
Willer missed USD’s season opener last Friday with an injury, but returned Sunday to help man the middle of the field for the Coyotes — she played 73 of the 110 total minutes (with the two overtime periods).
“I hope I can bring a positive energy to the midfield,” Willer said later.
Of course, when you stand 6-foot, there are also other things you bring to the midfield. While 6-foot isn’t exactly rare for that position, it provides Willer a unique opportunity to sky for balls over shorter players.
“She brings a different style, with her height and technical ability,” head coach Mandy Green said. “She brings a lot of good things for us.”
Green also pointed out that most of the ‘punts’ from the goalkeepers land in the middle of the field, where Willer roams.
“Every single year, I feel like teams are getting taller and taller, so the height is really beneficial,” Willer said.
It also helps that she’s surrounded by teammates who helped the program turn a corner last fall. The Coyotes qualified for the Summit League tournament for the first time and nearly took out North Dakota State in the first round.
And then in last Friday’s season opener, the Coyotes beat Big Sky Conference favorite Idaho 1-0.
“They were good with me, so I’m just hoping to make us better,” Willer said with a smile.
Better. That was a word Green used to describe her team’s performance Sunday, despite the 1-0 double overtime loss to North Dakota. The Coyotes had been out-shot 14-5 on Friday, but played to a 14-14 tie in total shots on Sunday with the Fighting Hawks, also of the Big Sky.
“We talked about connecting more passes, being more composed and getting our spacing, which I thought we did better today,” Green said. “We created more chances, so that’s all progress.”
The Coyotes recorded nine shots on goal, but the game with UND remained scoreless through regulation and then again through the first overtime. And with 1:29 remaining in the second overtime, North Dakota’s Karleen Yapello scored off a volley, ending the game.
“I can’t say I’m happy, but I’m pleased to see the progress we made,” Green said. “We’re two games into the season, so I just hope this is a good lesson for us.”
After two home games to open the season at their new complex, the Coyotes hit the road for the next six games. And while they were understandably disappointed Sunday, Willer said the best thing they can do is just move on.
“It’s a tough loss, so we just have to keep our heads up,” she said. “We’re taking the loss, but we’re trying to be optimistic.”
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