Illini soccer aims for win over Penn State

Illini soccer aims for win over Penn State

By Steve Contorno

After a 2-0 start to the Big Ten season, with both victories coming on the road, No. 15-ranked Illinois (6-4-0, 2-0) heads home to face No. 9 Penn State (6-2-2, 2-0) on Sunday in a battle of the conference’s top teams.

At the beginning of the season, Big Ten coaches ranked Penn State number one in the conference and Illinois second. Both teams have lived up to their preseason hype thus far, though Illinois has had their ups and downs. The Illini started the season 1-3 and fell out of the top-25. Since then, Illinois has regained its status as a national threat, winning five of six, including two victories against ranked opponents.

The Illini enter Sunday’s game refreshed after a week-long break, their longest of the season. Head coach Janet Rayfield said the extra practice and rest time would benefit them in this game, and in the long-run.

“One of the things being on the road has done is taking away from days of training,” Rayfield said. “When you travel on Thursday it’s hard to get anything done in practice. This week we get to go back and teach things we’ve kind of brushed over.”

In the beginning of the season when the team was having difficulty winning, Rayfield said her players were playing great soccer and getting better. But, Rayfield admitted that in Big Ten play, wins can be just as important as growing as a team.

“When you get into the Big Ten season results matter,” Rayfield said. “Obviously a Big Ten championship is something we’re battling for, as well as getting wins for post-season play. The key thing is last weekend we got the results we wanted, but we weren’t as good as we could be. We need to continue to get better, but also get the results we need.”

Rayfield points to being able to put all the elements of play together as an important step for this team to take. At times this season, Illinois has had difficulty scoring even when dominating ball control, and at other times they’ve scored goals without setting up the opportunities. But Rayfield said that if this team could put all the parts together, they would make a run at the conference.

“We’re not ready to peak yet,” Rayfield said. “There’s a lot of season and post-season left. We’ll continue to layer things in, and as we do, all the pieces will start to get tied together.”

Penn State is also coming off a 2-0 start to the Big Ten. Last weekend, the Nittany Lions faced Michigan State and Michigan, winning both games. Friday they will face Iowa before heading to Champaign. Rayfield said Illinois doesn’t know much about Penn State, but will find out this weekend.

“They will be a different Penn State team then we’ve seen in the past,” Rayfield said. “That will be part of the challenge. The key for us is how good are we and how well we play on Sunday.”

The team Illinois has seen in the past has beat the Illini in almost every match-up, winning 14 of 15 games. But senior midfielder, Paula Faherty, said Sunday’s game will be one of the best between the two teams.

“We’re two pretty even teams,” Faherty said. “We’ve got a lot of talent, they’ve got a lot of talent. It’s going to be a battle and it will come down to who wants it more.”

Defensively, Illinois has been able to shut down opponents in recent games, helping to close out victories, and stop scoring situations with all four defenders for Illinois playing in almost every minute of every game. Sophomore Emily Zurrer said a good defensive outing could be the difference in Sunday’s game.

“We have to keep doing what we’ve been doing,” Zurrer said. “We’ve been getting stronger each game and if we keep up our great communication we should be able to stop (Penn State).”

In addition to the highly anticipated match, this weekend’s game will also feature both Soccer Fest 2006, and will kickoff homecoming festivities for Illinois. Free food will be served as the Illini look to set a new Illinois and Big Ten Conference attendance record with over 3,000 fans.