Illini off to historic start

Illinois senior forward Tara Hurless (16) heads the ball while guarded by Kansas´ Nikki Alvarez (17) Tuesday at Illinois Soccer Stadium. Hurless scored Illinois´ lone goal in its 1-0 shutout against Kansas. Shira Weissman

By Derek Barichello

The Illini always knew they belonged among the elite teams in the country but on Tuesday they proved that to the rest of the collegiate soccer world.

The Illini defeated No. 9 Kansas, 1-0, moving their record to 6-0 on the season, the best start in program history.

The target all season has been on the Illini’s chest, but in Tuesday’s match the Illini soccer team faced unfamiliar territory. The target on Kansas was bigger – and that motivated the Illini.

“I usually don’t share the polls with the team,” said Illinois head coach Janet Rayfield. “Before the game, I decided to show them because a lot of polls had Kansas rated higher than us. We want the target on our chests to be bigger than our opponent’s; we want to be the team to beat.”

As early as it is in the season, the win could serve as a turning point for Illinois.

“It is huge for us to beat a ranked team like Kansas,” said freshman forward Ella Masar. “We gained a lot of confidence today. We feel like we can take it to every team the same way we did to (Kansas).”

Senior forward Tara Hurless put the Illini in control early, rebounding a ball that Kansas goalkeeper Meghan Miller could not handle and putting it in for the score. Masar and sophomore forward Jessica Bayne were credited with the assist.

After that, it was all the Illini’s defense.

“Our defense played great,” Masar said. “Our back four and our midfielders did a great job. Kansas is a mirror of us; they like to attack from the back. We did a good job of compacting them in, so they couldn’t get a lot of opportunities.”

The defense also lived up to the task of shutting down forward Caroline Smith, the Jayhawks’ premiere scorer. Smith was held scoreless with only one shot on goal.

“It was the coordination of our back four that contained her,” Rayfield said. “You cannot have one person mark her up, because she is too much of a natural scorer. It took a good team effort to stop her.”

The shutout was the fourth of the season for the defense.

With the Illini playing three games on short rest, the team got a simulation of tournament play. The Big Ten Tournament is conducted in a similar manner, with three games over the course of a weekend.

“It’s a good preparation for tournament time,” Rayfield said. “Especially next weekend too, which would be similar to coming back the next weekend in the NCAA Tournament. The question we have to ask ourselves is: ‘Can we celebrate our wins and come back against Michigan with the same consistency?’ That will be a test.”

The Illini start their quest for a Big Ten title Friday when they travel to Michigan. They then take on Michigan State Sunday.

“We feel great,” Bayne said. “We know the target will be back on our chests, because we won the conference tournament championship last year. Everyone will want to come out and beat us, but we are going to take everything one game at a time and try to beat everyone and win the Big Ten.”