Soccer seniors pave winning way

Soccer seniors pave winning way

By Steve Contorno

When head coach Janet Rayfield’s first recruiting class came to the University of Illinois in 2003, the team was coming off their worst season in three years. After a 9-11-1 season ended by a second-round loss in the Big Ten tournament, Rayfield was looking to bring in players who could move the program in a new direction. She was hoping to create a system that would develop players from the inside by creating a competitive practice environment that prepared every person on the team for the weekend’s games.

What Illinois got was one of the biggest turnarounds Big Ten soccer has seen.

Under Rayfield’s direction, the Illini vaulted from finishing eighth in the conference in 2002, to second place en route to capturing the school’s first ever women’s soccer Big Ten tournament championship.

“We all worked so hard coming in, but we didn’t know what to expect with this new coach taking over,” senior midfielder Quinn Reynolds said. “I think having to work with that has brought us all together.”

Four years later, Rayfield’s first group of recruits are now seniors. They have helped lead Illinois to another second place finish in the Big Ten. Last Friday, the seniors were honored for what most likely will be their final two home games as members of the Illinois soccer team. In front of a crowd full of students, Champaign-Urbana natives and family members, Jessica Bayne, Eva Strickland, Reynolds and Paula Faherty were commended for the contributions they made to Illinois’ soccer program.

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    “They’ve helped us establish a culture of a training environment where players are ready when they come off the bench,” Rayfield said. “Freshmen, after one year of training with these players, are ready to step onto the field. This senior class is really the one who started that culture.”

    This year’s graduating class- not including Faherty, who is a fifth-year senior and was not recruited by Rayfield-has had more success on the field than any other in Illinois history. In the program’s ten years of existence, no class has more wins, 55, or NCAA tournament appearances including an NCAA Elite Eight finish in 2004.

    But the individual accomplishments of the senior class have been just as remarkable. Strickland, Bayne and Faherty are all on pace to finish within the top five in career games played.

    Strickland, a forward, is currently ranked fourth all-time at Illinois in career assists and has started every game during the past two seasons. The Seattle native has been a consistent leader and her ability to control possession of the ball early in the game has helped to pace the Illini this season.

    For four years, Bayne has been one of Illinois’ best goal scorers. Her six goals this year have increased her career mark to 29, giving her sole possession of third place all-time. She is also third all-time in career points and has continued her scoring dominance this year despite only starting one game. Her big boot off the bench has worn down opponents and given the Illini a much-needed spark.

    It’s difficult to measure the success of midfielders using statistics, but Faherty’s leadership and knowledge of the game has not gone unnoticed by Rayfield. In 2005 an injury kept Faherty off the field, but she used her time off to coach a local high school soccer team and took them deep into the playoffs. The leadership she brings to the team as a captain is exemplified in the way she addresses her teammates and the game.

    Competing for playing time against one of the most talented midfields in the Big Ten, Reynolds has found ways to help the team improve.

    During practice, her service ball is one of the best on the team and gives the starters a real look at what game competition is going to be like.

    Last Friday, Reynolds started the first game of her career and played like she had been a starter all along. All four have seen the program come a long way since joining the team as freshmen. As Faherty put it, the team has a winning mentality now that hasn’t always existed.

    “In 2003 the team was young and just starting to make a statement for Illinois and the program,” Faherty said. “Even though we were in second then and in second now, the teams are completely different. The maturity level of the players and the confidence we’ve gained since then has brought the team to a completely different level.”

    “My freshman year we came from last in the Big Ten to second and that was a big surprise,” Bayne said. “Nowadays, we are expected to win. It’s completely different than it was my freshman year.”

    Even with their collective and individual success, none of the graduating seniors are superstars in the way that past Illini have been. Bayne’s 29 goals are well short of the records of 47 and 46 set by former players Tara Hughes and Emily Brown, respectively. But their ability to work within Rayfield’s system has created a winning atmosphere.

    “They’ve been willing to do the little things,” Rayfield said. “They’ve been great role players, but they’ve also been great role models. They’ve taught the players around them what it takes to be successful.”

    All four players agreed that the 2003 Big Ten tournament title was one of the most memorable moments in their careers. During the tournament, Illinois did not allow a single goal. All four would love to see their careers end the same way they started.

    “I’m just really excited for the next few weeks,” Strickland said. “I feel like all the past years have been leading up to this and all the work we’ve put in since we’ve gotten here is going to come full circle right now.”

    The four seniors agreed that this team is capable of even more than a Big Ten tournament title.

    “It’s on our shoulders,” Bayne said. “We have to come out and play well and stick to the small details we’ve worked hard at.”

    Maybe it’s because these seniors have so much more they want to accomplish that none of them felt like Senior Night was going to be their last weekend with the Illini. It may sound greedy, but the winningest class in Illinois soccer history wants to add even more accolades.

    “I remember in the prior years our season didn’t extend that long so Senior Night would always be so emotional,” Strickland said. “For us, it really was just like another game.”

    “It feels like we’re in the middle of the season, so why are we celebrating Senior Night?” Faherty said. “But it was two big wins that we needed going into the Big Ten tournament.”

    The class has a chance this weekend to add another Illinois first to their resumes – an eighth Big Ten win. When the team plays last-place Iowa this weekend, the seniors will lead a team that is hoping to come out and win one last Big Ten game before heading into the postseason.

    “We’ll take care of Iowa this weekend,” Bayne said. “But then we have a lot of season left.”

    The seniors are also looking to avenge losses to Ohio State and Michigan that kept them from winning the Big Ten season title.

    “Hopefully we’ll be playing one of those two teams in the tourney,” Strickland said. “I have a feeling we’re going to play Ohio State early in the tournament.”

    With a strong base of recruits and a system that has developed players within the program, Bayne said Rayfield has this program on track to win national championships.

    “I can only say that I hope the program continues to get better,” Bayne said. “The program has gone from being last in the Big Ten to a national contender. I like to think that the more years (Rayfield) has here the more success the program will have.”

    With the program as young as it is, it is almost inevitable that future Illini will exceed this class’ accolades. The names of Bayne and Strickland might one day move down in the record books.

    Faherty may just become another player in a long line of captains that have led the Illini, while those that witnessed Reynolds in practice might be the only ones to remember her contributions. But the program will always be defined by those who came first.