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On Campus: Playing with Fire fuels C-G grad Conner's desire

Cary-Grove graduate Drew Conner (left), a midfielder for Wisconsin, recently played with the Chicago Fire's under-23 team.
Cary-Grove graduate Drew Conner (left), a midfielder for Wisconsin, recently played with the Chicago Fire's under-23 team.

Everywhere Drew Conner turned during his summer job, he saw a familiar face.

Conner drove 90 minutes each way between McHenry County and Bridgeview, where he went to work for the Chicago Fire’s under-23 team.

“I didn’t miss a single practice,” said Conner, a Cary-Grove graduate. “There wasn’t really a summer break for me.”

Despite his difficult commute, Conner gladly made the trek to Toyota Park. His strong play as a midfielder for the Fire’s Premier Development League team earned him a spot on the PDL’s All-Central Conference team. Conner also said he got an opportunity to practice for about two weeks with the Fire.

While Conner was training with the MLS team, first assistant coach CJ Brown – who played 13 seasons with the Fire – was among his coaches.

“I have a photo of me with CJ when I was 4 or 5,” said Conner, a longtime Fire fan. “It was from an autograph signing. I brought the picture in to show him.”

A shooting drill during one practice was run by former MLS and U.S. National team standout Brian McBride.

“He’s a U.S. legend,” said Conner, who earned second-team All-Big Ten honors last season as a sophomore at Wisconsin.

On the field, Conner played alongside Fire midfielders Harry Shipp and Chris Ritter.
Conner and Shipp played together in the Fire Academy program as high school athletes. Conner and Ritter, who attended Northwestern, were former Big Ten Conference foes.

“It was cool to be in that professional environment,” said Conner, who started every game last season and helped Wisconsin make the NCCA tournament for the first time since 1995. “I want to be a professional soccer player very bad.”

Training with the MLS team gave Conner a glimpse of the players’ level of focus.

“The attention to detail is the biggest difference,” he said. “They strive to be perfect all the time. Every touch and every pass, they try to make it perfect.”

Conner, who started training with teammates this week in Madison, is expecting big things this season.

“I want to be the Big Ten Midfielder of the Year,” said Conner, who was second on the team with seven assists a year ago and will be a team captain.

Despite the departures of 13 seniors from last season’s 14-5-2 team, Conner is encouraged by the talent level of 12 incoming freshman.

“I like to instill confidence in the other guys,” he said. “I believe in the young guys we have. They’re really good.”

Along with his big personal goals, Conner is excited about the possibilities of what the team can accomplish. This week, the Badgers were ranked No. 21 in the National Soccer Coaches Association of America’s preseason poll.

“I want to win the Big Ten title,” he said. “I want to win the Big Ten tournament. And, I want to win the national championship. You can’t set the bar low. You’ve got to set it as high as possible.”

Youel’s summer success: Crystal Lake Central grad Nelle Youel won a pair of Intercollegiate Tennis Association Summer Circuit series tournaments in July.

Youel, who will be a senior this fall at Northern Illinois, won the Western Michigan event July 15 and the Notre Dame tournament on July 21 despite not being among the top eight seeds for either event.

In addition, Youel made the semifinals of the Indiana Summer Circuit event and the round of 16 in an event at Purdue.

Youel was NIU’s No. 1 singles player for the past two years. Entering her senior season, Youel is only 18 singles wins away from the school’s career record and 27 from the combined school wins record.

• Barry Bottino writes a weekly column and a blog about local college athletes for the Northwest Herald. Write to him at, check out his On Campus blog at and follow him on Twitter @BarryOnCampus.

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