Postseason gives Illinois soccer new life

By Aryn Braun

Illinois soccer has made it. For the fourth straight year the Illini are heading to the NCAA tournament. 

The field was announced on Monday, with Illinois grabbing an at-large bid that pits them against Washington State in the first round this coming weekend. 

The NCAAs were never a given. 2013 was a season of struggle. Illinois’ star and senior captain Vanessa DiBernardo suffered a knee sprain in the team’s Big Ten opener against Iowa back in September. The Illini have had troubles ever since.

The inexperience of younger players was obvious as they were thrown into more playing time than they were ready for.

Even gaining a berth in the Big Ten Tournament was iffy. Illinois just barely clinched its spot by beating Minnesota 3-1 in Falcon Heights, after a three-goal, second-half comeback. 

And thank God for that second half. Without it, Illinois would be hosting the Big Ten Tournament, but watching from the bleachers. The Illini haven’t hosted since 2000, and for them to miss out on that kind of homecoming would have been embarrassing.

Yes, they lost to No. 4 seed Indiana in the first round. But they played, and that’s more than can be said of Northwestern, Ohio State, Purdue and Michigan State.

Hell, they were even seeded in the middle of the pack. That means Illinois earned a No. 5 seed despite the injuries, losses and the fact that last-minute heroics were necessary to put them in the tournament in the first place. 

Now the Illini find themselves in a rare position. They’re not used to things working out as of late. They’re used to disappointment.

But they made it. Illinois is in, and DiBernardo is finally healthy.

No one wants to be sidelined with an injury, but as a senior, it seems like the end of the road.  What if she couldn’t come back? What if it was career ending?

Luckily for DiBernardo, and for the Illini, this wasn’t the case. She now gets the chance to compete alongside her teammates in the postseason.

This will be Illinois’ 12th appearance in the NCAA tournament all-time, and its 10th under head coach Janet Rayfield.

“It’s been a roller coaster of a season,” Rayfield said. “To get a new life and wipe the slate clean with a chance to play in the NCAA Tournament is what everybody hopes for.”

The Illini begin their championship hopes this Saturday at 3 p.m. in Pullman, Wash. The winner of the Illinois-Washington State game will go on to face either Seattle or Portland in the second round. 

But while the Illini hope they can capitalize on their new life and finish the 2013 season on a high note, making it to the tournament alleviates their fears of disappointment and leaves      Illinois feeling optimistic. 

Aryn is a senior in LAS. She can be reached at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @ArynBraun.