Third-seeded soccer team awaits NCAA tournament

Adam Babcock The Daily Illini Illinois foward Ella Masar, middle, gets past the defense of Indiana’s Jessica Boots, left, and looks to make her next move on Kelly Lawrence during the game at Illinois Track and Soccer Stadium, Sunday, October 22, 2006. Illinois finished its home season with a 1-0 victory.

By Steve Contorno

Gathered around a TV in the Bielfeldt Administration Building, the Illinois women’s soccer team waited for their name to be called. Even though they figured to be a guaranteed lock for the NCAA tournament, the anticipation still had everyone in the room nervous. But coach Janet Rayfield said it was a different kind of nerves.

“I didn’t have to spend hours last night doing all the permutations to see what it would take to get us in like last year,” Rayfield said. “I think we knew we were in, it was a matter of were our results good enough to make us a seeded team.”

She said worrying about which seed her team will earn is easier than worrying about whether they are going to get into the tournament at all.

Even with seven losses and after falling to Penn State in the Big Ten tournament championship, the Illinois women’s soccer team (14-7-0) found themselves as one of the 16 seeded teams out of a field of 64 in the NCAA College Cup. Rayfield said the strength of the team’s schedule and their play in the weeks leading up to the selection show helped them solidify their position.

“I can’t say enough about the strength of our non-conference schedule,” Rayfield said. “Going and playing those teams is something that will give us confidence going into the tournament.”

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Included in their tough schedule are eight teams that made the NCAA tournament. Illinois, seeded third in their bracket, fell to No. 1 seeded Texas 1-0 and No. 2 seeded Texas A&M; 3-0 in the first month of the season. After those two loses, the Illini went on to win 14 of their next 17 games, including wins over Utah, Auburn and Penn State, who all made the College Cup.

“This team believes in what they’ve been doing,” Rayfield said. “They believe in the system, they believe in each other. They are taking from what they’ve accomplished and carrying it over to the postseason. We’ve won games in a variety of ways and we’re going to carry that confidence over into the NCAA tournament.”

The Illini have a record of 5-5 against tournament teams this season counting a 1-1 record against No. 2 seeded Penn State and a 2-0 record over Purdue. Four Big Ten teams made the tournament.

With a win in the first round of the Big Ten tournament, Michigan (9-7-5) snuck into the field as well.

Illinois will face Southeast Missouri State in the first game of the single-elimination tournament. The game will be played in St. Louis on Friday.

While the Illini have the possibility of playing St. Louis University in the second round, whom Illinois lost to 2-1 earlier this season, senior forward Eva Strickland said the team is happy with their seed.

“We’re excited to play in St. Louis,” Strickland said. “We don’t have to go far, we can take a bus, and we don’t have to go all the way to Florida.

“We were talking about it coming back from Pennsylvania, and Jess (Bayne) thought we might be in St. Louis. She’s from Troy, so she said she’ll bring some fans.”

Notre Dame (20-0-1) received the overall No. 1 seed after being ranked on top of the coaches poll for the majority of the season. Santa Clara (15-4-1) is the No. 1 seed in Illinois portion of the bracket, which includes Florida State (14-3-4), the Illini and Oklahoma State (16-3-2).