Schedule relief in sight as Illini face unranked teams

Schedule relief in sight as Illini face unranked teams

By Steve Contorno

The Illinois women’s soccer team will play back-to-back games against unranked teams for the first time this season when they travel to Wisconsin (3-2-2) on Friday and then Northwestern (4-4-0) on Sunday. But head coach Janet Rayfield knows there are no easy wins in the Big Ten.

“It’s opening Big Ten weekend so you don’t know a whole lot about your opponents,” Rayfield said. “But you do know that every second of every game counts in the Big Ten. We’ve got to be prepared to play 180 minutes, or however many minutes it goes this weekend, if we want to put ourselves in a position to win a Big Ten title.”

Six of Illinois’ eight opponents have been ranked in the Top 25 at some point this season. But Illinois survived their grueling schedule, posting a 4-4-0 record and find themselves ranked 19th in the country.

“They’ve played the schedule we’ve subjected them to and that’s the biggest thing this team has done,” Rayfield said. “We’ve gone on the road against some really top teams. And even though we haven’t got the results we wanted on the road, we’ve played some great soccer. I think that gives us confidence heading into our first Big Ten weekend on the road.”

At times this season, Illinois has looked like two different teams: one that can score and one that can’t. In all four of Illinois’ losses, they were held to either one goal or were shut out.

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“(Big Ten teams) probably look at us like everyone else and say ‘I wonder which team we’re going to catch today, the one that scores goals or the one that doesn’t,'” Rayfield said. “I think everyone knows we’ve played a tough schedule, that we’ve had good results, and we think the same about most of the Big Ten teams.”

While Wisconsin and Northwestern aren’t the two most difficult opponents on Illinois’ Big Ten schedule, Rayfield said any game in the Big Ten is a test. Wisconsin has only lost one of its last five games, and Northwestern is a young team with a new coach, so Rayfield anticipates them to have a lot of energy.

Junior forward Ella Masar highlighted the difference between conference play and Big Ten play.

“I can’t really describe the energy this team has to play against the Big Ten,” Masar said. “You don’t want to say it’s different but it really is. You’re out there to really prove a point.”

Illinois enters Big Ten play tied for last in win percentage, .500, with Northwestern. However, besides Purdue (7-1-2) and Minnesota (6-1-1), no team in the Big Ten has more than four wins. Junior goalkeeper Lindsey Carstens continued to emphasize that the Illini’s schedule separates them from the rest of the Big Ten.

“We’ve the hardest schedule we’ve had at this university and that has prepared to play in the Big Ten,” Carstens said. “We’re probably more prepared then we’ve ever been and great things will come from it this season.”

The schedules don’t lie. After Illinois, the most ranked opponents a team has played are four by Penn State. The Nittany Lions (4-2-2) were ranked No. 1 in the Big Ten preseason coaches poll, followed then by Illinois and Purdue. Last weekend, the Illini concluded non-conference competition with a 4-1 win over Utah. Freshman forward Chichi Nweke led the scoring attack with three goals in the second half. The hat trick brought her total to four goals and nine points on the season, both are team-leading numbers.

Masar is second in points behind Nweke. Of her five points on the season, three of them have come off of assists. Masar’s play on the sideline has been unmatched by opponents. Her ability to chase balls into the corner and serve it to the center has sparked several Illini goals.

“I have faith and confidence in my teammates,” Masar said. “I know if I played up there they’re going to get it and serve it up and I’m going to be there. I’ve come to know that they’ll always be there when I pass it.”

After a slow start, the Illini have turned around by winning three of their last four games.

The only loss in that stretch was on the road against St. Louis in double overtime.

Masar said that while most of the pieces are coming together, there are some difficulties the team must overcome to win in the Big Ten.

“Sometimes we get ahead of ourselves and we’ll play so well and think we have the game and let up a little bit,” Masar said. “In those five or 10 minutes they take advantage of it.”

“The Big Ten is rough play with some big girls. Now it’s time to really prove ourselves.”

“We need to play hard and tough for a full 90 minutes,” Masar said.

Carstens stopped short of saying the Illini are more prepared than the rest of the Big Ten, but t