Battle for Big Ten on line this weekend

Shira Weissman

Shira Weissman

By Derek Barichello

As the Big Ten season hits its halfway point, the Illini soccer team finds itself at its most pivotal stage this weekend.

The Illini travel Friday to No. 3 Penn State, who leads the conference with a 5-0 record. Then on Sunday, they travel to No. 19 Ohio State, who sits behind the Illini in fourth place with a record of 2-0-3.

No. 23 Illinois is in third place in the Big Ten standings with a record of 4-1. If the Illini win both games this weekend, they would have a share of first place in the conference with three games remaining in the Big Ten schedule.

“We’re very excited about this weekend,” said senior forward Andrea Ridgeway. “These are two huge matches. We know how important it is to win them if we are going to accomplish our goal of winning the Big Ten.”

Coming into this season, Penn State has held the title of the “team to beat” in the Big Ten. The Nittany Lions won the season title last fall and started the preseason rankings in the top 10.

The Lions have the premiere player in the conference, forward Tiffany Weimer. She has scored in every Big Ten game this season and has won Big Ten Player of the Week honors three times.

Penn State Goalkeeper Erin McLeod, who competed as a member of the Canadian National Team, boasts a 0.20 goals against average, which is the lowest in the conference, allowing only one goal in five games.

In front of McLeod is defender Natalie Jacobs, who captured this week’s Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week honor. Jacobs and McLeod both help lead a defense that has only given up five goals in 11 games.

“Defensively, they are very tough and athletic,” said Illinois head coach Janet Rayfield. “Offensively, Tiffany Weimer is the cog pin of that offense. She has the ability to involve the other players, who are all talented. You cannot just have one girl mark her up – she is too good.”

Rayfield said the Illini might be able to draw upon the defense’s performance in the win against Kansas, when the Illini shut down the Jayhawks’ star forward Caroline Smith.

“Caroline and Tiffany are different players, but in a lot of ways they are similar,” Rayfield said. “The experience we can draw upon is how we defended as a team, and were able to contain Caroline Smith. It will take that same team effort to be successful on Friday.”

Rayfield said she wants the team to rise to the occasion.

“We need to embrace the challenge of ending their streak of 33 consecutive home wins,” Rayfield said. “We need to embrace the challenge of stopping Tiffany Weimer and beating the No. 3 team in the country in their place. To do that, we need to respect our opponents’ abilities as well as have confidence in our own ability to get it done.”

Although Ohio State does not present as big a challenge on paper as Penn State, the Illini cannot overlook them. The Buckeyes are an experienced team, returning all 11 starters from last year’s 13-5-3 season. They are led by forward Danielle Dietrich, who has five goals this season.

“Similar to Penn State, OSU has a … player (Dietrich) who is a cog pin for her team,” Rayfield said. “So for us, we will have to contain her. It will be two days of having to bring our A-game.”

With all that said, the Illini are ready for the challenge.

“We’re just going to come out and play intense,” Ridgeway said. “These are going to be two tough games. We need to play our game, keep possession of the ball, create lots of opportunities and finish on our opportunities. We’ll be excited.”