Coach: Barry Jacobson
Two-sport athlete Pikul has her sights set elsewhere
By Matt Le Cren
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Downers Grove South sweeper Jessica Pikul had it all planned out.
For years, she worked hard toward her goal of earning a college athletic scholarship, honing her skills on the soccer field and volleyball court and sharpening her mind while becoming a high honors student in the classroom.
College coaches in both sports took notice and the calls and letters began flooding in. Pikul became one of the few athletes to receive Division I scholarship offers in two sports.
After much thought, she whittled her volleyball choices down to St. Louis, a Division I school, Lewis and Dubuque. Her soccer finalists were Division I Valparaiso, where teammate Sarrah Ludwig will play, Lindenwood and Illinois-Springfield.
Then she made a stunning decision – she said no to all of them.
Pikul, you see, is a teenager who has her priorities straight and the maturity to make hard decisions. She opted not to play college sports because she wants to become a nurse and has enrolled in the accelerated nursing program at St. Louis. The program crams five years of study into four, and Pikul determined that studying and playing a sport would be too much.
“The nursing program is really tough,” Pikul said. “I’ve talked to people that play Division I sports and do nursing and it’s a really big challenge. I have for most of my life handled both soccer and academics and focusing on both, but it is way different in college.”
The door is still open for Pikul, a 5-11 right side hitter, to play volleyball for the Billikens, but she would likely have to walk on or accept a limited scholarship her freshman year. She is tempted to try, and perhaps still will.
“Part of me wants to try out and see how it goes and if it’s too tough and I end up quitting for educations reasons, that’s perfectly fine,” Pikul said. “But if not, I’ll be doing club or playing intramurals.”
But the decision was not easy and took a long time for Pikul to make. She made up her mind last month.
“It was really, really tough,” Pikul said. “That’s why it took me a while to get back to coaches because once you get offered you’re like, ‘Oh, it’s so tempting,’ especially for U of I Springfield. The coach would send me Christmas cards saying, ‘hi Jess, Merry Christmas.’ They kept calling me.
“It also took awhile to because I wasn’t sure if I was going to go into education and become a teacher or be a nurse. Once I decided to become a nurse and once I talked to nursing students I realized how hard the field really is, especially at SLU. I’m starting nursing classes right off the bat, so it’s a much more harder curriculum, more hours in the week, so that contributed to it.
“So I have my life planned out ahead, unless for some reason it changes and I realize I don’t like nursing. But I don’t think it will. It’s helping people, which is one of my passions.”
Until last year, Pikul was set on becoming a teacher. The change was influenced by her cousin, Jackie, who switched from education to nursing. Her aunt Diane also is a nurse.
“[Jackie] was just raving about how much she loved nursing,” Pikul said. “It kind of influenced me to possibly reconsider. I shadowed a couple of nurses [including Jackie] and I just heard all the benefits of nursing and I haven’t heard a single nurse that doesn’t like their job. They love what they’re doing.
“Plus you can move around. You can work in a hospital with heart patients and then you can move to cancer patients. You can work with newborns. You have all those different options and I like that variety.”
Variety has spiced Pikul’s life from an early age. She first played soccer when she was 4 and picked it up for good in third grade. She also played softball for several years and began playing volleyball in seventh grade.
Pikul continued playing volleyball through freshman year of high school, then took two years off before returning last fall for her senior season. In a testament to her athleticism, she shook off the rust to earn a starting position and became one of the Mustangs’ most feared attackers.
But the soccer field is where Pikul made a name for herself. A three-year starter, she has been the anchor of one of the best defenses in the area.
How did a kid with so much athleticism – her mom put her in soccer so she could burn off excess energy – and competitive drive end up being a defender when most players yearn for the glory of scoring goals?
“I started off as a midfielder. They always wanted me because I’m fast and I was fine at it,” Pikul said. “It wasn’t my favorite. I didn’t like having a lot of stuff going on in front of me and behind me and having to worry about both directions. That’s just how I was.
“I guess that’s why I like defense; everything is looking forward. Yeah, you have to go back sometimes but very rarely.”
Then one day in fifth grade, the club Pikul was playing for merged two teams into one. Everyone’s position was changed and Pikul got put on defense.
“I was good at it and I enjoyed it,” she said. “I remember my first game playing sweeper and I did so well and the coach was like, ‘ok, this is definitely your spot.’ Ever since then I’ve been a defender.”
Now Pikul is regarded as one of the best defenders in the state. She has been so steady that when she does make a mistake or gets beat by a Division I forward, it comes as a shock even to her coaches.
Defense has been the backbone of the Mustangs for several years now, an importance that has increased this season as the offensively-challenged team struggles with key injuries. So Pikul has been relied on to impart her knowledge to her fellow fullbacks, none of whom are upperclassmen and only one of which, sophomore Lori Niehaus, is a returning starter.
What are some of the qualities needed to play good defense?
“It goes for any position on the field: you need to be in control, in control of your body movement, control of your mental game, your thoughts and your actions, and then you also have to have a really good sense of what’s going on during a game, like what formation the forwards are running,” Pikul said. “It takes a ton of talking, especially who is picking up who, staying in the right formation, covering all the gaps.
“We’re talking all the time, whether or not you hear us. We might not be screaming, but we’re constantly talking to each other. Defenders especially have to be calm and collected because a lot of times you have girls running at full speed forward.
“You have to be able to trust your body, like when you’re winning 50-50 balls you have to play smart and playing smart is knowing what the other team is doing, what their potential is, what their forwards’ skills are, like this girl likes to go to her right. You have to catch that, where your forwards are turning to run and where everyone should be. A sweeper needs to know that.”
If that sounds like a lot of pressure, it is. It takes someone who is smart and steady to be a sweeper. Players who are not intelligent will eventually end up on the bench or off the team.
It is a testament to Pikul’s play that Downers South (10-4-3) surrendered 11 goals in its first 17 games, with nine shutouts. Goalies Cassidy Hermann, Amanda Meyers and Katelyn Laraia have combined for seven shutouts.
“I know there’s a lot of pressure on the defense, especially this year because our offense isn’t high-scoring, but I don’t mind the pressure,” Pikul said. “I can’t lie, my maturity level and [ability to stay] calm on the field has grown since I started off on varsity sophomore year.
“Sure, you get the jitters, especially being a sophomore. Even last year I got nervous a little bit, but this year I’ve just grown in how mature I can be and how mentally strong I can be.”
Downers South coach Barry Jacobson has witnessed that maturation process.
“She’s a very good athlete, obviously, but she’s been a real mature person,” Jacobson said. “She’s a big, strong person in the back. She knows the game well.
“The kids respect her and the younger kids look up to her. She’s good on and off the field. We don’t have to worry about her or what she’s doing. She’s a very good leader.”
A member of the school’s chapter of the JKB leadership group, Pikul has a 4.12 GPA and scored 29 on the ACT, so her teammates know they can turn to her for answers. She, in turn, cherishes the bond she has with them.
“I love the girls. They’re great, especially this year,” Pikul said. “Last year we had Kimmy Grimmer. She was like the captain of the back. This year it’s me and I love it.
“People call me Mama Peak. I take care of my defenders. We’re so close in the back. It’s kind of our special thing and all the girls in the back are great. They listen, they try their hardest and they do great.”
Hermann, a senior playing her first year of high school soccer, appreciates Pikul’s leadership.
“She’s really dedicated and when she knows she needs to work on something she works hard in practice,” Hermann said. “She doesn’t stop until she hits her goal.”
One of Jacobson’s goals in the off-season was to recruit the athletic Hermann to come out for the team. He assigned Pikul, who played on the volleyball team with Hermann, the task of convincing her.
“She was just really supportive when I was making my decision,” said Hermann, who hadn’t played soccer since junior high. “She said I’ll have your back no matter what. She was basically the one who wooed me in. We were on the volleyball team and all through volleyball all she talked about was soccer.”
Hermann’s inexperience has shown at times, but she’s a fast learner and Pikul is glad she’s between the pipes.
“She’s doing very well,” Pikul said. “She’s willing to recognize her mistakes and fix them and that’s what makes her a great story and a great person to work with. That’s how I’ve always been.”
In addition to her defensive responsibilities, Pikul has added to her repertoire this spring. When all-state midfielder Jessica Bronke missed three weeks with a pulled quad muscle, Jacobson asked Pikul to take many of the free kicks and corner kicks usually taken by Bronke.
The results have been promising. Showcasing a strong leg that can boom the ball over 50 yards, Pikul has scored twice on long free kicks and had several others saved. Her first came on a 43-yarder March 31 that helped the Mustangs tie Neuqua Valley, which was ranked fifth in the nation at the time.
Pikul also tallied the only goal in a 2-1 loss to Naperville Central on April 20, ripping a 37-yarder past all-state keeper Jill D’Amico, a Jacksonville recruit.
“That was a great goal,” Naperville Central coach Ed Watson said. “That was an all-state goalkeeper that couldn’t get to the ball because of where it was placed. It was too high and it was hit with such pace, so it was a great goal for them.”
To Jacobson, it was the latest example of how Pikul’s willingness to do anything for the team.
“She’s been called on to do a lot of different things in three years,” Jacobson said. “With some of our injuries she’s stepped up and done [restarts] and she’s really done a nice job with that.
“When Bronke went down we needed somebody to step up without changing everything we did, so it was a good surprise to see that she’s capable. We know she can hit a ball, but she’s putting a few big ones in big games on goal.”
What impresses Jacobson most about Pikul is her understanding of what really matters.
“I think she understands high school sports, when a lot of other kids are just playing to hopefully get something [to go to college],” Jacobson said. “She’s a great girl. She’s really good in the classroom, involved in a lot of community activities and school activities.
“She’ll be missed when she graduates, in many different ways, on and off the field.”
Pikul, whose ultimate goal is to become a nurse practitioner, intends to keep competing in sports even if it is only on a recreational basis, but in one way she isn’t looking forward to the end of her career at Downers South.
“There’s so many benefits to sports, there’s no reason I should stop being competitive,” she said. “But that’s the one thing I’m going to miss; the great relationships with the girls, the whole concept of teamwork that I love.”