Illini could avenge loss to St. Louis in second round

Illini could avenge loss to St. Louis in second round

By Steve Contorno

The Illinois women’s soccer team will travel to St. Louis for the second time this season, but this time with quite a bit more at stake.

The Illini (14-7-0) take a No. 3 seed into the NCAA tournament and will face Southeast Missouri State (10-7-2) in the first round of the tourney Friday in St. Louis. Illinois last took the three-hour trip on Sept. 14 to play St. Louis University. The Illini lost 2-1 in double overtime. But senior forward Jessica Bayne said the team has much more positive feelings about going to St. Louis this time.

“Obviously I enjoy because it’s home for me,” said Bayne, a native of Troy, Ill. “It’s not very far so we’ll have a lot of fans. Friday is a night game, and we love night games. So I think overall it’s just a really good situation for us.”

Illinois enters the NCAA tournament after falling to Penn State in the Big Ten tournament championship game. Southeast Missouri State, on the other hand, won the Ohio Valley Conference tournament last weekend. Head coach Janet Rayfield said playing a team coming in with that kind of momentum can be a challenge.

“They’re going to be a pretty solid team defensively, and have been successful pretty late in the season,” Rayfield said. “You always struggle in the NCAA tournament with teams that come out winning the conference tournament because they’re on a role. We’ll have to deal with their emotion and their defensive abilities.”

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    Rayfield also said that coming in as a seeded team, the Illini should be able to play well against any team in the tournament, and will need to take care of early round games.

    “I think we match up well,” Rayfield said. “We’ll be able to use our ability to keep the ball and use some of our attacking weapons and see if we can’t test their defense.”

    The strength of Illini’s attack this season has been their diversity. Illinois has five potential goal scorers on their team, including Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year junior Ella Masar, whose scoring touch is complemented by an equally dangerous passing ability. Masar has eight goals and eight assists on the year. Including Masar, five players have at least 10 points and three of them have more than five goals.

    Illini goal scorers have also been able to perform in the clutch. All four of senior Eva Strickland’s goals have been game winners, and four of Masar’s eight goals have decided games. Bayne, who has seven goals herself including two game winners, said the group’s ability to do the small things have led them to their success.

    “Looking at all the details and trying to get every shot on frame has been key for us,” Bayne said. “As long as we do that and finish the ball, with everybody helping, hopefully we score a lot of goals this weekend.”

    Defensively, the Illini have been just as strong. Before their 3-1 loss to Penn State, Illinois did not allow a goal for 496 minutes. During that stretch, Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year sophomore Emily Zurrer led the Illini to five shutouts.

    Freshmen Brittany Garrett proved she could play on the backline when sophomore Jessica Levitt was injured, and now gives depth to that position from the bench.

    “This team in the second half of this season has made so many strides defensively,” Rayfield said. “What they’ve really done has created a staple defensive mentality. When this team defends aggressively and when they look to keep teams from receiving the ball, we’re really hard to get behind. We will look to be intelligent and aggressive this weekend.”

    If Illinois can get past Southeast Missouri State this weekend, they could face St. Louis University (14-3-2) in the second round on Sunday. The host school this weekend plays Drake (12-5-2) in the first round of the tournament. Bayne said that while the team is looking to play one game at a time, they’re excited at the opportunity to avenge the early-season loss.

    “Obviously we want that game back,” Bayne said. “We feel like we had every opportunity to win that game. Even though it would be a home game for them, I think it’ll be just as much of a home match for us because we’ll have a lot of fans there. I would love a rematch in the second round.”

    The Illini are 1-0 all-time against Southeast Missouri State and 4-3 in the NCAA tournament under Rayfield.