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Putting it on ice

Putting it on ice

The Chippewa Valley was once referred to as the "Silicon Valley of the Midwest" because of an abundance of high-tech businesses, said MIS department chair Jim LaBarre. The computer science and management information systems departments are seeking increased enrollment by using about $1 million from the state as part of a program called the Chippewa Valley Initiative.

Tucked away in Julie Lilla’s bedroom is a small box bound by rubber bands that holds three glossy medallions wrapped in patriotic ribbon.

With noted delicacy, Julie unravels the medals and drapes them across her lap.

“This was in 2008 in Portage, Wis., where we got a bronze medal our first year at Junior Nationals,” she said, running her fingers along the brassy grooves.

Holding the 2012 Junior Women’s Curling National Championships silver medal in her hands, she pauses and her words are suddenly intoned with a sense
of gravitas.

“We lost to the Minnesota 2 team at Nationals in the championship game so they’re at worlds,” she said. “We beat them at state and nationals and lost to them in the
championship game.”

 

LEARNING THE GAME

 

Julie, a junior accounting major and member of the Minnesota 1 curling team, took second place in the finals of the Junior Women’s Curling National Championships on Feb. 3
in Madison.

Often referred to as ‘chess on ice,’ curling is a sport comprised of four players who alternately slide or ‘throw’ a 42-pound stone across a sheet of ice toward a target zone,
or house.

“The object of the game is to get more stones closest to the center of the house than your opponent,” Julie said. “And the purpose of sweeping (is not to) make the rock go faster ­— it cannot change the speed of the rock, it just allows the rock to go further, because sweeping creates friction on the ice and cleans the ice.”

 

WARMING UP

 

Born and raised in Trempealeau, Minn., to a family of curlers, Julie took to the ice at a young age. Influenced by her father, who was a competitive curler in high school, she started curling at the local club in Centerville, Minn., when she was four years old.

Her father, Dan Lilla, said that Julie showed a natural inclination to the sport from the beginning.

“From little on she was quite athletic altogether and wanted to curl with the leagues at the club,” he said. “She had a desire for it; you could see (that) she was interested in it.”

As a child, Julie and her siblings spent a significant portion of their childhoods watching their parents curl from the sidelines. In fact, her family was so invested in the sport that as infants, her older brothers napped in a crib in the rink warming area. Although Julie never dozed on site, some of her earliest memories were formed on the ice.

“When I threw my first stone at the age of four or five it weighed more than I did,” she said with a laugh.

Years of after school practice, training camps and unwavering dedication led Julie to the competitive curling world, where she played second position, or the player who both throws the fourth stone and sweeps her teammates’ stones.

Julie experienced her first Junior National Championship in Portage as a junior in high school. There she and her teammates took home the bronze as the youngest team to ever medal at Junior Nationals. The girls went on to compete at five Junior Nationals Championships, including the 2011 Fairbanks, AK games where they lost in the championship game, receiving a silver medal.

 

CALLING THE SHOT

 

According to Julie, Nationals is a weeklong event that requires plenty of endurance and perseverance. Competitors face nine other teams from all over the country, and the top four teams to qualify for the semi-finals play each other to determine the championship game.

In a similar fashion to the 2011 games, the 2012 Nationals resulted in second place finish after a poor call late in the game. This past year, however, the team faced
even further adversity.

What was anticipated to be a guaranteed win for Julie and her teammates took a few unexpected turns for the worse. Minutes before the play-off game, the third rock player, or the player who throws the fifth and six stones, broke her toe during warm-ups, leaving her seriously injured and suspended for the next four games. Shorthanded and without an alternate, Julie was forced into a position she hadn’t played in five years.

Coach Mike Solem said the team had faith that she would deliver with grace and determination.

“It’s hard to expect someone to just step into that role, and Julie embraced it and gave it her best,” he said. “Everybody on the team knew she was going to do her best — that’s just Julie.”

Captain and longtime teammate Miranda Solem said Julie exceeded the team’s expectations.

“I think she did a terrific job under the circumstances,” she said. “Julie is always a team player, she is always focused and you always get the sense that she’s completely committed when we are on the ice. She’s just a good teammate.”

Mike said it was tough to lose such a close game, but he’s proud of his athletes’ hard work and positive attitudes.

“We made it a long ways and we came very close to winning nationals and going to Worlds in Sweden; it just didn’t turn out this year,” he said. “It was a very good effort under the circumstances that we faced.”

Despite the initial disappointment, Miranda said she’s grateful for the opportunity and proud of the team’s accomplishments.

“It was hard losing the finals knowing that we could have gone to worlds, but on the flip side I know that there were eight other teams that would have rather been in our position so it felt good to get another medal.”

 

STAYING BALANCED

 

Julie said curling takes up a considerable amount of her time. The combination of practice, travel and competition requires her to miss at least a week of class each semester. However, she doesn’t allow one obligation to overshadow the other.

“If school and curling are both top priorities, you can’t have one strive and the other one fall,” she said. “You have to excel in both if those are both your top priorities. In order to go curl you have to keep your grades up, in order to keep your grades up, you have to have that dedication.”

Dan Lilla says he’s continually impressed and proud of Julie’s strong work ethic and ability to balance both demands.

“To be a student and do as well in college as she’s doing and still curling, which is quite demanding … just tells you a little bit about her work ethic,” Dan Lilla said. “So we’re pretty proud of her.”

 

SLOWING THE SPIN

 

For now, Julie plans on taking a step back from the competitive scene to focus on school and her current internship with Wipfli accounting firm. She will soon exceed the age limit for the Junior Nationals competition but would like to join a mixed league in the future. As far as the Olympics, she isn’t rejecting the notion.

“I wouldn’t rule (the Olympics) out at all,” she said. “Right now it’s not my top priority, but I definitely would be open minded about competing and trying out.”

While her curling career is momentarily on the backburner, she said that the ice will always feel like home.

Julie gathers her hardware and one by one places them back into their case.

“I’ll display them some day,” she said. “But right now they’re just going to stay in the box.”

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