[NOTE: This story ran on miac-online.org. Here's a link to the original version]
NORTHFIELD, Minn. -- The Carleton College soccer teams have enjoyed immense success over the past four years. The men's and women's teams have combined to win five Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC) regular season championships and at least one MIAC Playoff title with six combined trips to the postseason championship game. And while the Knights owe most of that success to their talented coaches and players, they also indirectly owe some credit to Carleton alum Tom Yoder.
Yoder - who graduated in 1970 with a history degree - would eventually tell his twin niece and nephew about his college experience at Carleton, and even though the siblings lived in Portland, Ore. - almost 1,800 miles away from the school's campus - they were intrigued enough to check it out. Four years later, Knights soccer fans are certainly glad Tim and Abby Wills (Portland, Ore.) decided to follow their uncle's footsteps all the way to Northfield.
Since enrolling at Carleton in 2008, the Wills twins have been huge catalysts for the recent soccer success at the school. Both have earned multiple All-Conference honors, led their teams to numerous conference titles and have been involved in each team's deepest Division III playoff run. It's doubtful either head men's coach Bob Carlson or head women's coach Keren Gudeman could have ever imagined that a 1970 alum would end up being one of their best recruiters.
"Initially, I think both of us heard from our uncle on my mom’s side," Tim said. "He attended Carleton and graduated in 1970 as a history major. After looking into Carleton, I realized that it was academically challenging and well-known for that aspect—all of the rankings show Carleton within the top 10 liberal arts colleges, mainly the U.S. News and World Report. I also realized that I could play soccer at the D-III level, which is something I probably wouldn’t have been able to do at a D-I school and program."
Tim was the first Wills to reach out to the school, contacting Carlson, taking a visit and ultimately going the Early Decision route with his enrollment. After learning a little about his newest recruit and seeing some game tape, Carlson knew he was dealing with a potentially special player.
"Tim was a state champion and an All-State player, so I was really interested," Carlson said. "Then I saw him on tape and knew he could be really good for us. He enjoyed his visit here and decided to go Early Decision here in the winter and had it all taken care of by Feb. 1."
The fact that Tim settled on school first still seems to be a playful point of contention between the twins.
"My brother will tell you I followed him to Carleton," Abby said, predicting her brother's answer almost word-for-word, "[but] my application was submitted no later than his."
"She followed me to Carleton," Tim said in a separate interview, joking of course. "She didn't make her final decision until late in the process after knowing where I was already going. No ... I'm just kidding. We both arrived here separately."
Arriving at the same place separately isn't all that uncommon for this set of twins. Though they share the same parents, birthday, college, sport of choice and jersey number (8), the two are really quite different, both on and off the soccer field. Though their accomplishments are ultimately similar - Tim's team is 55-19-6 in his career while Abby's is 54-21-9 - their careers and the way they help their teams succeed don't look similar on the stat sheet at all.
"While it’s true that we were born on the same day, that’s about one of the only things we have in common," Abby said. "We are very much 'Tim' and 'Abby' and rarely ever, if at all, 'the twins.' We are different people with different interests, and we make choices for different reasons."
"Surprisingly, Abby and I don’t see too much of each other on campus," Tim added. "We are both involved in completely different majors, thus we take none of the same classes. We have lived on opposite sides of campus up until this year. I think sophomore year, we ate lunch together once a week for a couple terms, but we’re both always pretty busy so it’s hard to coordinate our schedules."
Tim's success is much easier for a casual soccer fan to quantify with numbers, and that's because he's put up more of them than any other player in Carleton history. He currently has 34 goals and 33 assists for 101 career points, and he is the Knights' all-time leader in all three categories. Add in his 13 career game-winning goals and his All-MIAC honors - one First-Team selection and one Honorable Mention award with more likely this season - and it's easy to see why he's helped Carleton win three MIAC regular season titles with three trips to the MIAC Playoff Championship game and a trip to the NCAA Division III Sweet 16.
"He's got a great soccer brain," Carlson said, listing his star player's best attributes. "He reads the game really well. He's got great touch. He's got unbelievable vision. He's a clinical finisher. When he gets a chance, he's going to finish it. He does not like to lose. He's a fierce competitor."
On top of all that, he's put the work in to become one of the most decorated players in school history.
"He really buys into our philosophy that our best players have to be our hardest workers," Carlson added. "He cares about the team a ton. He really puts in the effort in training."
Tim is proud of his success, but is quick to credit those around him - like Carlson and All-MIAC teammate Ryan Cammarota - for his accomplishments. And even then, he said he'll remember his team's achievements more than his individual records and accolades.
"I’m not sure when they started keeping track of points, goals and assists, so I’m sure there are a few people before me to have done better than me, just lost somewhere in history, but it does feel pretty cool," Tim said of his scoring record. "It’s more about what this team has done really over the past four years than what I have done specifically.
"For example, if I didn’t have Ryan Cammarota on the field with me over these four years, I would probably have less than half as many points as I do now. He is the best player I have ever played with, and he sets me up so that all I have to do is score from within the 6-yard box. All the credit is also due to the 6 years of other classes that I’ve played with ... I couldn’t have done anything I have without the help of my teammates and those surrounding me on the field."
However, he owes some of the credit to his twin sister as well. Evidenced by their win-loss records at Carleton, both are fierce competitors, which rears its head in a fun but full-on sibling rivalry.
"The two of us are extremely competitive in anything we do against the other, whether it be soccer, intramural sports, grades, etc.," Tim said. "The single sentence of [a text message] from Abby after a game where she says, 'You should’ve scored,' or, 'I got an assist and you didn’t,' makes me want to perform better the next game."
Abby's support for her brother doesn't just come in the form of text messages. When the two teams aren't playing simultaneously, she doesn't hesitate to offer verbal "encouragement" to her twin brother.
"Often times when I’m watching Tim play in a game, I can’t refrain from voicing my frustrations when he makes a mistake – a trait that my teammates love to make fun of me for," she said.
"They support each other in their soccer here, by showing up for the few games that they are able," Gudeman said of the siblings. "When Abby is able to be in the crowd at the men's games, she cheers proudly for her brother."
Tim's biggest fan - and his biggest critic - isn't just offering uninformed advice when she voices her opinion at the Knights' men's games. Though her career numbers - four goals, six assists and 14 points - don't really match up with one of Tim's season stat lines, Abby is just as decorated throughout her Carleton career. A midfielder , Abby was an All-MIAC First-Team pick in 2008 and 2010 and an Honorable Mention selection in 2009, and also could have more honors on the way this season. Her undeniable impact on a game may be more subtle to a casual fan, but Gudeman is quick to list the ways Abby makes a difference.
"Abby brings a very high soccer IQ, in addition to her composed play and ball-winning ability," Gudeman said. "She reads the game tremendously well, she can disrupt an opponent's attack high on the field before it has a chance to develop and she can deliver a killer ball to a teammate making a run 30 yards downfield. Abby has made her teammates better with her composed play and simple distribution."
And Gudeman also mentioned - surprise, surprise - the competitive nature of her star midfielder, as well as her passion for the sport.
"[Abby] is also very competitive, and she brings that energy and drive to every practice," Gudeman added. "We can count on her to play hard, no matter how 'small' the activity is, and in this way she is a great leader by example. And Abby just loves the game of soccer, and her passion rubs off on those around her."
It's easy to tell what kind of player Abby is as one listens to her describe what she loves about playing the game. It's clear she cares deeply about the quality of play rather than the end result, although the two are often correlated, and even in big wins she remembers the way the game was played first and the outcome second.
"The Augustana game in the first round of the (2008 NCAA) tournament was what I believe to be some of the best soccer I have ever had the pleasure of being a part of – from both teams," Abby recalled as one of her favorite Carleton soccer memories. "It was one of the most satisfying games I have ever played, and I would have walked off the field with my head held high even if the game had gone the other way.
"Winning is great, but playing beautiful soccer is better, though often times these two things come hand-in-hand. My greatest memories are those of when everything just clicked."
That passion has led to an incredible stretch for the Knights' women's team as well. This year they claimed their second-straight MIAC regular-season championship to go along with their 2009 Playoff title, which they rallied to win as the No. 4 seed. Carleton lost a 1-0 decision to Concordia Tuesday in this year's Playoff semifinal round, making this the first year Abby and the Knights won't play in the postseason championship game.
However, there is still one Wills alive in the MIAC Playoffs, as Tim and his team will travel to the other side of Northfield Saturday to take on rival St. Olaf for the postseason title and an automatic bid to the Division III Playoffs. The Knights advanced in a 1-0 win over nationally-ranked Gustavus Tuesday on a game-winning header by Tim that Carlson described as, "soccer at its best."
"We played a beautiful ball to our winger behind the defense," Carlson described. "Tim used his soccer brain. He sluffed off his defender, slowed down a little, and then timed his run up to smash the ball into the back of the net. It was one of the best goals we've scored here in a long, long time. It was huge to get an early goal and it was beautifully executed."
Both siblings were glad they chose to venture so far from home for college, but both also noted the downside was the distance from their parents - Sudan Yoder and Jonathan Wills - who they were accustomed to seeing on the sidelines. Fortunately, they've still received that support from afar, both in visits to Northfield and through online Web cast of all home and most away games, so when Tim takes the field Saturday at St. Olaf, he's likely to have his family with him - either in-person or online.
"It wasn’t really a tough decision to go to college so far from home," Tim said. "I’m sure my parents don’t appreciate that answer but luckily we have long breaks in between terms where we return home. Also, Carleton has a great sports information director in Dave Pape, so my parents have loved the fact that every home game is streamed live."
"There is one downside to living half a country away," Abby added. "I rarely get to have the pleasure of seeing my parents on the sideline, cheering me on. Considering their deep involvement in my 16-year-long soccer career, the reality of their absence took a while to get used to. On the bright side, Carleton and some other MIAC teams are wonderful enough to webcast [most games], which means they can still watch me play most of the time, albeit through a computer rather than in person."
Soccer has long been a family affair for the Wills - both as players and fans - so being able to continue their playing careers together at Carleton has been an unforgettable experience, and one that has kept the twins closer throughout the years.
"My family has always been a fan of simply watching soccer – we were those crazy people who woke up at unhealthy hours in the morning to watch the World Cup," Abby said. "It’s no surprise that this pastime has carried over into my college life.
"Naturally, we spent almost all of our time together, playing soccer; it’s inevitable that this brought us closer as siblings. If I didn’t always have someone with which to play soccer in my developing years, there is no doubt in my mind that I wouldn’t be as good as I am now.
"We’ve always been a soccer family, so maybe in that sense we discuss the mental aspects of the game," Tim added.
However, it will be fun to see how the siblings keep their competitive edge next year when they won't have box scores and soccer stats to compare. Maybe they'll start competing in travel after going so far from home for college. Both have indicated they plan to make another big move once their degree is in hand.
Tim will graduate with an Economics degree, and he hopes to begin a career as a research or investment analyst at a finance firm in either Chicago, New York or San Francisco. Abby plans to one-up her brother and go even farther away after graduation - she'll receive a degree in Psychology, but is applying for a job teaching English in France.
Regardless of where life takes the Wills twins next, they've already made a lifetime of memories and - more important to their sibling rivalry - bragging rights over their four years on the soccer field at Carleton, many coming from their entertaining competitive nature.
"I was quoted in an article my freshman year saying that one weekend when my parents came to visit, 'Abby scored one goal, so I had to score two,'" said Tim.
"One time, during intramural soccer, my team played my brother’s team in the finals," Abby added. "At one point during the match, I stole the ball from him and started running up the field – but it wasn’t long before he ran after me and took me out from behind. Neither of us was ever very good at losing."
Right on cue, almost to emphasize her point, Abby not-so-subtly added, "My team ended up winning that game, I’m proud to say."
Actually, thanks to a passion for soccer and the competitive streak born out of their sibling rivalry, the true winners have been the two Carleton soccer teams while the Wills twins have simultaneously been wearing No. 8 for the Knights.