Soccer to face two Big Ten foes

Soccer to face two Big Ten foes

By Steve Contorno

After Sunday’s dramatic come-from-behind victory over then-ranked No. 9 Penn State (7-3-2, 3-1), No. 10 Illinois (7-4-0, 3-0) will stay at home and play two teams who have struggled in Big Ten competition so far this season. But head coach Janet Rayfield said her team is focused even after their big win over the Nittany Lions.

“All season long we’ve talked about playing one game at a time,” Rayfield said. “The win Sunday doesn’t mean anything without an equal performance this weekend.

“There are still things we need to do better to beat any team in the Big Ten,” she added.

On Friday, Illinois will face a young Minnesota squad (6-5-1, 0-4) whose four conference losses represent the most by a team in the Big Ten. The Golden Gophers start 11 freshmen and have averaged just over one goal per game. Minnesota entered the Big Ten season 6-1-1, but have yet to establish themselves in conference play.

Sunday, Illinois will match up against Ohio State (5-5-1, 1-3) who also have had difficulties winning against Big Ten opponents, despite playing well. The Buckeyes’ Big Ten losses have each been by one goal, including a double-overtime loss to Northwestern. Winning six of their last seven games, the Illini hope their recent success gives them a favorable advantage against two struggling opponents.

“The number of weapons we have makes it tough for teams to defend us and I think that will come into play this weekend in terms of how we match up,” Rayfield said.

Illinois hasn’t had much trouble scoring goals against Big Ten opponents, netting nine goals in just three games. Seven different players have scored goals for the Illini in Big Ten games, and they are second in the Big Ten in team assists with eight.

“We have a lot of different personalities that could score,” Rayfield said. “I think what’s happened is those personalities are starting to use each other and are being really unselfish. That unselfishness has made everyone that much more dangerous.”

The most dangerous player last weekend for Illinois was junior forward Ella Masar. Her two-goal game against Penn State included the tying goal and the game winner. Masar’s performance earned her a spot on Soccer Buzz Elite Team of the Week and the Soccer America Team of the Week, as well as Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week. The Big Ten honor is the second for an Illinois player this season.

“The collectiveness that we have is letting different people shine on any given day,” Rayfield said. “The individual recognition brings spotlight to this team because people are starting to say Illinois is a team to be reckoned with because they have a lot of different people that can get it done.”

Maybe the most surprising aspect of this team has been their success despite their youth. Illinois consistently starts two freshmen, forward Courtney Bell and midfielder Jackie Santacaterina and is getting significant playing time from several others. Forward Chichi Nweke leads Illinois in goals and points. The No. 9-ranked recruiting class has been put into a demanding roll, and Rayfield said it has paid off.

“At this point we’ve stopped thinking about them as freshmen, they’re a part of this team,” Rayfield said. “We had a class of eight freshmen on a relatively small squad. They were going to have to come in and play significant minutes at a high level of competition. We’ve pushed them into doing that sooner than we might have, but they have all answered that push.

“They’re still getting better and that’s what is exciting for this program.”