Women’s soccer back in Sweet 16

By Steve Contorno

In their second Sweet 16 appearance in three years, No. 15-ranked Illinois women’s soccer team (16-7-0) will play Florida State (16-3-4), the team that kept them from the Sweet 16 last season.

After the Illini upset No. 20-ranked Florida in the first round, 2-0, No. 10-ranked Florida State defeated the Illini 2-1 and eventually went on to the College Cup.

Junior forward Ella Masar scored the Illini’s lone goal. But head coach Janet Rayfield said both teams have changed this year, leading one to believe the result might be as well.

“Some of their personalities are still there and they’ll have similar strengths,” Rayfield said.

“But they’ve matured a bit, as have we, so I think it will be a different game,” she added.

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    In their last meeting, Illinois was without goalkeeper Lindsey Carstens.

    The Ohio native missed the final five games of the 2005 season after breaking her leg.

    Carstens, whose 11 shutouts leave her one short of the single-season record, said she looks forward to not just being a spectator.

    “It was frustrating not being able to do anything physically for your team,” Carstens said. “I’m excited to get to play in my first NCAA tournament. Both teams are going to be great on Sunday and it’s going to be a great match up.”

    Offensively, the Illini will look to stretch the field using an array of weapons. Both Masar and freshman forward Chichi Nweke, the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year and Freshman of the Year, respectively, scored a goal and tallied an assist in the first two rounds of the tournament.

    Masar said the team is finally playing at their top potential, and hope to carry that into Sunday’s game.

    “All the pieces have come together,” Masar said. “When we play together as a unit, I think that we’re unstoppable and we can up against anyone. We’re out to prove ourselves this weekend against Florida State.”

    Carstens said the key to the defense’s success will be their ability to defend from the entire field, not just the defensive third.

    “We have to stay together as a unit, the whole entire team defensively,” Carstens said.

    “I don’t think any backline can do it by themselves,” she added.

    Illinois will be playing Florida State in Tallahassee on a bigger field than they’ve normally played. Rayfield said she expects both teams to use the open field to create scoring chances.

    “It’s going to be a pretty tactical game,” Rayfield said. “Teams are going to have a little bit of space and you’re going to have to deal with the space on the field and take some of it away.

    “So I think you might see a little bit of a different game, but we are confident in what our strengths are. So we’re going to try to play a game that plays to our strengths.”

    Both teams entered the game as one of the 16 seeded teams within the field of 64.

    Illinois came in as a three seed, while Florida State is a two seed. Only nine of the seeded teams remain, including three of the No. 1 seeds. No. 1-ranked Santa Clara was upset in the first round by Southern California.