Soccer enters Big Ten tourney as No. 2 seed

Soccer enters Big Ten tourney as No. 2 seed

By Steve Contorno

After an impressive Big Ten season in which the Illinois women’s soccer team won more conference games than any other team in the program’s 10-year history, the Illini head to the Big Ten Tournament as the No. 2 seed and are set to play Wisconsin in the first round. Illinois (12-6-0, 8-2-0) beat Wisconsin (7-8-3, 4-5-1) on Sept. 22 in their Big Ten opener. But head coach Janet Rayfield said both teams have come a long way since then.

“I watched that tape and we weren’t all that great and I don’t think Wisconsin was,” Rayfield said. “My guess is it’s going to be two different teams that step out on the field on Thursday. You have to wipe the slate clean of what you know of both teams because if they go out based on what we did in that game, they’re selling us short. We’ve gotten better and I expect them to be better.”

In their September meeting, Illinois led by as many as three goals as senior forward Eva Strickland and freshman forward Courtney Bell netted a goal apiece to give the Illini a 4-2 victory over the Badgers.

Illinois is entering the Big Ten Tournament having not allowed a goal in their last 296 minutes of play, one of the most dominating defensive stretches since 2003, when the Illini shut out teams for over 631 minutes. That time included the entire 2003 Big Ten Tournament when Illinois took home the championship.

A byproduct of their defensive dominance is that junior goalkeeper Lindsey Carstens has gone virtually untested in conference games. Carstens has only had to defend 38 shots on goal in the Big Ten season, stopping 28 of them. But Rayfield said she knows the capabilities of her keeper.

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“It’s tough as a goalkeeper when you don’t face a shot and then all of the sudden you have to be ready to defend a big one,” Rayfield said. “But Lindsey (Carstens) is a very solid goalkeeper and she’s contributed to our success because our defense is so comfortable playing the ball back to her. She does some great things with her feet.”

In 2003, Illinois won the Big Ten Tournament solely on the strength of their defense. This season, the Illini have a much more balanced squad that can attack just as well as they defenses.

Junior forward Ella Masar has led the Illini offense by tallying 19 points, including seven assists, good enough for second in the conference. But Illinois’ goal-scoring success has also come from the strength of their bench. Senior forward Jessica Bayne scored five of her seven goals in conference games, consistently coming off the bench to give Illinois a boost.

But Rayfield said it’s not the individual success of the forwards, but their ability to play with each other that has made the attack so potent for opposing defenses.

“Early on we did a lot of things where we would individually do things to score goals,” Rayfield said. “But we now have a more dynamic attack where the movement away from the ball has created issues for defenses to solve. We have become collectively dangerous and continuing to do this will be a key for our success this weekend.”

In the second round, Illinois could face either Purdue or Ohio State. While Illinois took care of a ranked Purdue team on Oct. 20, they fell to the Buckeyes 2-0 in a tough, physical home game. Players have talked previously about the prospects of getting revenge on Ohio State in the Big Ten Tournament, but Rayfield insists her team is playing one game at a time.

“Right now we’re really focused on Wisconsin,” Rayfield said. “I don’t think the team has even looked at who could potentially be next on the list.”

Host school Penn State enters the Big Ten Tournament as the top seed after compiling a conference best 8-1-1 Big Ten record. Even though Illinois has as many conference wins as Penn State and beat them 3-2 on Oct. 1, the Nittany Lions’ tie against Indiana gave them enough points to edge the Illini out of the top spot. Illinois’ only chance of facing Penn State would be in the finals Sunday.

Illinois is 6-3 all-time in Big Ten Tournaments under Rayfield and is 7-1 in the first round, winning every game in which they were seeded higher.