Soccer beats Auburn, aspires for nationals

By ME Online

Janet Rayfield’s 100th win as a women’s head soccer coach might have been a career milestone, but her 101st victory may be the Illini’s most important win this season.

Hosting the Illini Tournament, Illinois faced two very different opponents this weekend. Syracuse (1-4-1), entered their game against Illinois winless, while No. 13-ranked Auburn (5-1-0) was riding a five-game winning streak.

On Friday, the Illini dismantled Syracuse 4-0 for Rayfield’s 100th win in front of the third largest home crowd in Illinois women’s soccer history. On Sunday, the Illini faced a strong and versatile Auburn squad. In their previous three games against ranked opponents, the Illini were outscored 9-0.

Illinois didn’t even give Auburn a chance to score. Posting their second shutout of the tournament, Illinois took care of Auburn, pulling out a 1-0 victory in regulation. Illinois only allowed Auburn six shots, none of them on goal. Junior Mary Therese McDonnell, who was named the tournament’s defensive MVP, led the Illini defense. McDonnell played all 90 minutes of the game and continuously disrupted the Tiger attack.

“All four of our backs and (goalkeeper) Lindsey Carstens did a great job stopping the Auburn front three,” Rayfield said. “Bouncing back and putting up two shutouts after giving up so many goals in the last few games shows that we really got our defensive stuff organized.”

Illinois had 25 shots, with eight of them coming on net. The Illini pressured Auburn the entire match, and in the 69th minute they were able to break through with the game’s only goal. Given a free kick after a Tiger foul, the tournament’s offensive MVP, junior forward Ella Masar, sent a pass into the far end of the box. Waiting for it was sophomore defender Emily Zurrer, who headered the ball passed the Auburn goalkeeper for her first goal of the season.

“I was pretty open on the far post so I just yelled over to Ella, ‘Ella, far post,'” Zurrer said. “And she just hit the perfect ball and I was just there, the right place at the right time.”

Masar had two assists on the weekend, the first against the Orange on Friday. Masar crossed the ball from the left side of the field to the right, toward senior forward Eva Strickland. Strickland then drilled a 30-footer into the far-left post for the first goal of the game.

“I just looked up and knew that my teammates were going to be there,” Masar said. “We always talk about discipline and making that near slot-far post. We work on it in practice, and they’re always where they’re supposed to be and make me look good.”

Against Syracuse, the freshman class, ranked ninth in the nation, led the attack, racking up two goals and an assist. Forward Chichi Nweke, a top-seventy-five recruit, scored her first goal of the season in the second half of Friday’s game. In the 54th minute, with her team looking to insure their 1-0 lead, Nweke dribbled through three defenders and then sent a shot over the Syracuse keeper’s head.

“(Nweke) is great at getting her body between defenders,” Rayfield said. “She keeps fighting and her wiry legs just seem to find the ball and keep defenders off of it. She’s got natural instinct around the ball that gets her free.”

Later in the half, Nweke assisted fellow freshman forward Courtney Bell. Nweke delivered a centering pass from the right side of the box to Bell, who finished with a goal from seven yards out. Senior forward Jessica Bayne added a goal to seal the victory in the 87th minute.

After four games against ranked opponents, and with upperclassmen and underclassmen mixing well together, Rayfield said getting back up to .500 this weekend has Illinois back on track for a national championship.

“We knew all along that we were getting better through some of those games, and we put ourselves in a situation where we had to improve,” Rayfield said. “The rest of the country knows we tested ourselves early and we used the test to make ourselves better.

“We haven’t given ourselves a break and that’s going to be good come November when the Big Ten and post season begin.”