"I thought I got into coaching really to win games. Now I realize that is important to me, but I just love... changing kids and changing people."
— Tara Bilanski
entral Oregon has more than its fair share of high-achieving athletes—so in that regard, Tara Bilanski fits right in.
At the University of Washington, she earned the Most Valuable Player title three times before playing professionally for FSV Frankfurt. She's also been an assistant coach at U of W and head women's soccer coach at Portland State University and the University of Oregon, earning the title of 2006 Pac-10 Coach of the Year and becoming U of O's all-time winning-est coach in 2010.
So what's she doing now? Heading up a youth soccer club, of course.
In a city chock-full of athletes from a multitude of disciplines, that's not very strange at all.
"After being on that side of the mountains my whole life—Puyallup, Seattle, Portland, Eugene and now here, I am like, what have I been doing for all these years?" Bilanski jokes. "I've got the perfect situation here—lifestyle, location, job—I've got it all."
I met with Bilanski over the Aug. 12-13 weekend, when the Bend FC Timbers, the club she leads as executive director, was deep in the throes of the Bend Premier Cup. As we talked, the fields at Bend's Pine Nursery Park were abuzz as 202 teams from six states competed in the tournament that represents Bend FC Timbers' biggest fundraiser of the year. As we finished our interview, the intensity ramped up, with the U19 girls' team from Bend engaged in a shootout, aiming to win the title in their division. If you thought a teen girls soccer game can't draw a raucous crowd, you'd be wrong.
As Central Oregon's population continues to grow, so too do the opportunities for athletes. Not so long ago, however, soccer wasn't much of a thing around these parts.
Organized, competitive soccer began in the late '90s under the name Central Oregon Soccer Association, with parents and coaches installing the first dedicated soccer field in Bend at Ponderosa Park. The original club (under various names) was affiliated with the Oregon Rush soccer association for a number of years, before making the switch to join the alliance of Portland Timbers soccer clubs in 2013. Today, competitive soccer players have the option of joining either Cascade Rush or the Bend FC Timbers—a far cry from the one-soccer-field landscape of yore.
Bilanski came onto the scene around that time—bringing some solid inspiration for what's possible for soccer players. At the U of W, she earned single-season records for goals, assists AND points (12 goals, 6 assists and 30 points), and had a 91-99-26 win-loss-tie record during her 11 years of collegiate coaching, according to data from Eugene's Register Guard. Nowadays, Bilanski says she's focused less on winning and more on helping each player achieve their individual goals—personal or athletic.
"I thought I got into coaching really to win games," Bilanski reflects. "Now I realize that is important to me, but I just love... changing kids and changing people."W
ith the sights and sounds of the Bend Premier Cup all around us while we talked, it's clear that soccer is still a major part of her life. But does that have to mean it rubs off on her two kids? Not necessarily.
"My son who's 12... he will do anything to not come to the soccer field for mom or sister or anybody else," Bilanski chuckles. "My daughter on the other hand, she got into the game pretty young, loves it, but has become a goalkeeper."
So what's it like being the coach's daughter? Bilanski's daughter hasn't had to find out—yet.
"I've never coached her. I'd like to at some point in time, but I've wanted her to experience soccer without being the 'principal's' kid," she says.
With about 450 competitive players (not counting recreational or training program players) in the club, it's clear that the sport plays large in Central Oregon these days.
"Women's soccer has come so far in the last 20 years," Bilanski says. "The '99 Women's World Cup I think really pushed into the American culture—and now you've got household names."
The Current Landscape: One Turf Field in All of Central Oregon
Still, there's more work to be done. At the moment, Central Oregon has just one turf field, at Bend's Summit High School. To fill in the gaps, the club is in the midst of its "Build It Forward" fundraising campaign to build four turf fields—with lights—at Pine Nursery Park. Bilanski and her team aim to build two fields by 2020 and a total of four by 2025. Bend Park and Recreation District has offered the space on a $1, 30-year lease; all the club has to do is raise the funds for the fields. For Bilanski, it's a huge priority.
"You're always going to struggle to be a legitimate club until you have your own fields," she says. Still, what remains most important, Bilanski says, is impacting kids in a positive way.
"Even though I thought I got into the game for winning and losing, I'm like, gosh, this game can teach us a lot."
Bend FC Timbers