Soccer looks to improve on last year

By Sultan Abdul-Ahad

Even though the Illini soccer team lost All-Americans in forward Tara Hurless and goalie Leisha Alcia from last year’s Elite Eight squad, they are still looking forward to having a good season.

They enter the season ranked 14th in the NSCAA/Adidas poll and are placed ahead of opponents Stanford and Nebraska, whom they beat in the Sweet Sixteen last season.

“It’s a sense of respect from others, but it doesn’t change how we go about things on a daily basis,” said Illinois head coach Janet Rayfield.

Looking to replace Alcia are three players, sophomore Lindsay Carstens, senior Rachel Frank and freshman Danielle Wagner.

“(Alcia) left big shoes to fill,” Frank said. “While we are competing, we are making each other better.”

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Looking to replace Hurless’ team-leading 12 goals last season are a number of players, including Illini’s second leading scorer from last season, junior Jessica Bayne.

On defense, the Illini return seniors Kelly Campbell and Christen Karniski, and sophomore Mary Therese McDonnell. Freshman Emily Zurrer joins that group, and has been with the Illini since January. She is a member of the Canadian under-20 National Team.

“Team defense will be our strength, and it is the foundation that we have built this program on,” Rayfield said.

The Illini have one win and a tie on their two game exhibition schedule. On Aug. 13, the Illini fell behind 2-0 to the Central Illinois Under-16 team, but rallied to score two unanswered goals by Bayne and sophomore forward Ella Masar in the second half to grab the tie.

On Sunday, the Illini traveled to Cincinnati and defeated the Bearcats 4-0 with goals from Karniski, Zurrer, senior forward Natasha Karniski and freshman forward Charlotte Cooke.

“I’m excited about where we are at technically,” Rayfield said. “We’ve had great senior leadership and have been more organized than we expected.”

The Illini begin their season this weekend at the Milwaukee Cup, where they will face Marquette on Friday and Wisconsin-Milwaukee on Sunday.

“Our ranking puts a target on our chests,” Rayfield said. “Opponents will come out with the underdog mentality and nothing to lose.”

Next Friday, the Illini open the home portion of the schedule, and play the first of their five ranked opponents when No. 17 Nebraska comes to Champaign. The next week, the Illini play No. 14 Stanford in San Francisco.

In Big Ten play, the Illini have a three-game stretch in which they play Wisconsin at home, and Ohio State and Penn State on the road.

With a Big Ten Championship in 2003 and an Elite Eight berth last year, Rayfield knows what her team has to do to take that next step.

“We were three games from a National Championship,” she said. “The steps we have to take now are smaller, but more difficult. We have to keep believing and just be able to execute consistently.”