VALPARAISO | Two years into her career at Valparaiso, Tara Ellis was in danger of getting left behind.
The Portage native dealt with several injuries over the first half of her career, but it wasn’t a concussion or a sore leg that was limiting her playing time. It was her conditioning.
“I never really took my fitness into consideration,” Ellis said. “That was a big downfall for me. My endurance wasn’t there and that led to sitting down with my coach. That’s when Frank Eksten came into the picture.”
Eksten runs the Sports Medicine Institute in Crown Point and has more than 25 years of experience in strength and conditioning. Eksten, as he has done with several recent Valparaiso athletes, began training Ellis and tapping into her potential.
The workouts paid off as Ellis has started every match over the last two years and played every minute of competition this season. Since beginning her work with Eksten, Ellis has sat out just one half of soccer.
“It’s kind of hard to grasp and I don’t really think of it like that,” Ellis said. “I just go out there and play the game."
Ellis plays center back for a Valparaiso team that went more than a full calendar year (378 days) without surrendering more than one goal in a match. The Crusaders led the nation in Goals Against Average (0.51) last season and have 19 shutouts over the last two years.
“We didn’t realize it had been that long until people started talking about it,” Valparaiso coach John Marovich said. “We stick to our principles and those are blocking crosses, blocking shots and limiting corners. Tara is a good example of someone who adheres to those principles.”
As stingy as Valparaiso has been over the last two years, the last two months have been a struggle. The Crusaders surrendered three goals at Milwaukee on Sept. 28 before giving up two goals to Horizon League newcomer Oakland on Oct. 9. Valparaiso’s most recent loss came by way of Detroit in a 2-0 decision on Oct. 26. That loss eventually led the Crusaders to the No. 5 seed in the conference tournament where they’ll travel back to Detroit to take on the No. 4 Titans this afternoon.
“We’re frustrated, no question,” Ellis said. “Coach tells us that it’s hard in this conference to do what we did for so long, but I believe we can get back to that.”
Both Marovich and Ellis believe that the two goals that Valparaiso surrendered to Detroit during the regular season were unavoidable. What’s not unavoidable is that the next loss Valparaiso registers will mark the final collegiate game for Ellis. For someone that didn’t get on track until halfway through her career, the fact that the end is around the corner is a frightening concept for the four-time All-Duneland Athletic Conference selection.
“I’ve been playing this game for 18 years and to think that the last game could be this week is crazy,” Ellis said. “I was talking with some of the seniors and we were trying to figure out how many games we’ve played in our entire careers. I can’t even think that high. We just want to make sure we have more than one left.”