Soccer prepares for final matches

Illinois forward Courtney Bell reaches to get possession of the ball from behind Ohio State defender Melissa Miller, Oct. 8 at Illinois Track and Soccer Stadium. Both teams were scoreless at the second half, but Ohio State pulled ahead to beat Illinois 2 Adam Babcock, The Daily Illini

Illinois forward Courtney Bell reaches to get possession of the ball from behind Ohio State defender Melissa Miller, Oct. 8 at Illinois Track and Soccer Stadium. Both teams were scoreless at the second half, but Ohio State pulled ahead to beat Illinois 2 Adam Babcock, The Daily Illini

By Steve Contorno

The Illinois women’s soccer team prepared this week for what could be the two biggest games of the season. With the conference championship on the line and only three games left in the regular season, the Illini (9-6-0, 5-2-0) will host two of the Big Ten’s top teams. On Friday, Illinois faces No. 17-ranked Purdue (12-3-2, 5-2-0), who come into this weekend tied with Illinois for third place in the conference.

The Boilermakers have not disappointed the Big Ten coaches who ranked them third in the conference’s preseason poll.

On Sunday, Illinois will match up against No. 21-ranked Indiana (9-3-4, 5-1-1), who has exceeded far beyond what coaches thought they were capable of doing. The Hoosiers entered the season ranked third to last by Big Ten coaches and came into conference play with a humble 4-2-3 record. Since then, Indiana has proven they are a strong team and will be a tough opponent to overcome in Illinois’ final weekend at home.

“They’ve defended and defended and defended relentlessly,” head coach Janet Rayfield said of Indiana. “They just haven’t given up any goals.”

Until last weekend, when Indiana was upset by Northwestern, the Hoosiers had an unbeaten streak that started on Sept. 1. They also boast a conference-best goals-against average of 0.55 per game, and have allowed only three goals in Big Ten play. But, Indiana has had difficulties scoring, tallying only 19 goals this season.

The one-sided play of Indiana could be an advantage for Illinois, who are one of the conference’s most balanced teams. Since conference play began, Illinois is first in the Big Ten in points, goals and assists, and also find themselves among the leaders in goals allowed and shutouts.

The team will look to stay balanced this weekend as they face two very different opponents.

“We could have a goal-fest on Friday and a defensive standoff on Sunday,” Rayfield said. “These two teams are very different.

“What it’s going to come down to is can this team defend their own net and at the same time find the opponents net. If we can do that, we will come out successful.”

Friday night will also be Senior Night for Illinois. Barring any postseason home games, the occasion will mark the last home games for starting forward Eva Strickland, fifth-year midfielder Paula Faherty, and one of the team’s strongest scoring threats, forward Jessica Bayne.

Outside of Faherty, the senior class has compiled a record of 53-23-7 and has more wins then any other class in the program’s 10-year history.

The group was also part of a Big Ten Tournament championship team as freshmen.

But neither this class or any other group of Illini has ever won the Big Ten season championship.

With three games left, including two this weekend against the conference’s top-3 teams, the Illini have a chance to come up with that elusive championship.

“We want two wins at home in front of our crowd,” Bayne said. “For seniors, this being our last weekend at home, we’re looking to go out with a bang.”

For junior forward Ella Masar, this weekend is a chance to “send the seniors off with 2 ‘W’s.”

But Masar also said that a chance to make a statement in the Big Ten is also a goal this weekend.

“I don’t think any team in the country has gone from (being ranked) 13th to unranked to 10th to unranked again,” Masar said. “We’re a young team, but we need to prove we can play with the best. When we come out we look like we’re beating ourselves. We have to come out and play our soccer for 180 minutes.”

Illinois is also trying to bounce back from last Sunday’s 2-1 loss to Michigan.

After being physically taken out of their game last weekend, Illinois is prepared to play two tough Big Ten games.

Rayfield also said the team worked on movement away from the ball in practice to create better scoring opportunities.

“We’ve been defended a little bit more difficultly these past two weeks,” Rayfield said. “And I think we’ve become a little too predictable.

At this point of the season teams know you and they’ve watched you. We worked on doing what we do well, but we added some things to make us less predictable.

“This weekend will prove where we’ve gotten ourselves as a team. It’s been a dogfight and every game has been a dogfight and this weekend will be no different.”