Forwards, goalkeeper lead Illini to Sweet 16


Brad Vest The Daily Illini Illinois’ Jessica Bayne pushes the ball upfield past Saint Louis University defense in the first half of Sunday’s game, November 12, 2006. Illinois beat SLU 4-1 earning them a spot in the sweet sixteen of the NCAA women’s soccer tournament.

By Steve Contorno

For the second time in three years, the Illinois women’s soccer team (16-7-0) will head to the Sweet 16 after defeating host school St. Louis University (15-4-2) on Sunday. The No. 15-ranked Illini scored six goals on the weekend and allowed only one goal in two games to advance to the third round of the NCAA tournament.

“Both teams kept the ball and had dangerous chances,” head coach Janet Rayfield said. “Lindsey (Carstens) with two (saves) over the net keeps us in the game. Those sorts of things make a difference when you get to this point of the season. I think we played well and St. Louis played well, and the fans were treated to some great soccer.”

With 559 in the stands, the Illini put on a scoring clinic, tallying two goals in each half. After Sunday’s game, a rematch of a game on Sept. 14, there was little doubt in Billikens head coach Tim Champion’s mind who was the better team this time around.

“They’re a very good soccer team,” Champion said of the Illini. “We got beat by a team that played better than us.”

Big Ten Freshman of the Year Chichi Nweke scored the first goal for Illinois on a shot that deflected off a St. Louis defender. Two minutes later, Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year Ella Masar added her ninth goal of the season when she took a pass from Nweke and blasted a shot from the top of the box that clipped the far post before heading into the back of the net.

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“The first goal is always critical,” Rayfield said. “We came out going into the wind, so to get a couple in the first half with the wind blowing at you is important. It helps your team to relax, so anytime in a soccer match you can score early it’s important.

“One of the things we talked about all year long is if we can get our shots on frame, we’re pretty dangerous,” Rayfield added. “To get 16 shots and score four goals is pretty good efficiency.”

The Illini attack controlled the ball for much of the game. Masar said the forwards’ movement away from the ball and using the flank created many of their scoring chances.

“Janet (Rayfield) drew out what were supposed to do and we just executed it,” Masar said. “We followed the game plan because we know every game is going to be different. That’s one of the strengths of our team – we absorb what we’re supposed to do and then we go out there and do it.”

The Billikens came within one goal in the second half when a St. Louis attacker sent a pass from the endline over goalkeeper Carstens’ head where it was deflected into a wide open net. But Illinois responded with two goals, scored by senior forward Eva Strickland and freshmen defender Brittany Garrett, and held on to their lead to come away with the win.

Rayfield has lauded Garrett, who took over sophomore Jessica Levitt’s defensive spot on Oct. 13 while Levitt was injured with a stress fracture, for the level of play she has brought to the backline, including an ability to serve corner kicks and push an offensive attack.

“(Garrett) stepped on in the second half of the season and has done a great job playing confidently,” Rayfield said. “She’s confident with the ball and she’s played a lot of different positions coming up so she’s comfortable with the ball.”

Illinois out-shot St. Louis 16-4, took more corners than them (6-5) and had 8 more fouls than St. Louis as the Illini created a physical Big Ten atmosphere in the Atlantic-10 Conference stadium. It was the Billikens’ first home loss this season.

Despite strong gusts in her face, Carstens was able to help the Illini win the field position battle. In the first half, Carstens, who tallied 8 saves including two key saves in the final minutes, frequently booted against the wind over the centerline.

“I’m very comfortable hitting into the wind,” Carstens said. “It gives us a good advantage to get the ball to our front runners so they can make plays with it.”

Illinois will travel to Tallahassee, Fla., for the next round of national competition. Masar said the team is looking forward to their return to the Sweet 16.

“It’s been very rewarding,” Masar said. “We’ve worked extremely hard this postseason to come out every game and play our hardest.”