Illini hope for redemption this weekend

By Steve Contorno

As if the prospect of opening the 2007 season at home wasn’t enough motivation, sophomore midfielder Courtney Bell said there’s a little something extra pushing the team this weekend.

“We want a rematch of last year,” she said.

Senior defender Mary Therese McDonnell offered similar sentiments.

“We want to redeem ourselves,” McDonnell said.

In 2006 Illinois opened the season at the Nike Tiger Invitational, and after defeating South Carolina, the Illini were showed up by Missouri in a dominating 5-0 loss.

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On Friday, Illinois will find itself pitted against the Tigers once again. Although head coach Janet Rayfield said the prospect of starting a new season with a team that can do something special is exciting enough, the team wants to prove something to the Tigers.

“It’s not as much revenge as they want to show Missouri that the team that performed down there isn’t indicative of what the Illinois soccer team looks like,” Rayfield said.

Part of the reason the Illini didn’t look like themselves last year was because they were missing two main components of their defense. Then-junior goalkeeper Lindsey Carstens had to miss the game against Missouri after getting charged with a red card in the previous game. Emily Zurrer, who would go on to win Big Ten Co-Defensive Player of the Year as a sophomore last year, was still playing with the Canadian U-20 national team. Both will be in the starting lineup this year against the Tigers.

“Those two make a huge difference to our team,” Rayfield said. ” … We’re a much more seasoned defensive team now, and with everyone here and in place we’ve been able to spend the summer and spring putting these pieces in place.”

The Illini enter the regular season ranked No. 20 in the nation, and are coming off a pair of 1-0 preseason victories. After posting two shutouts, the defense, which starts all upperclassmen, is looking to build on its success Friday against Mizzou and for Sunday’s home contest with Xavier.

“We cleared up a few things we were kind of struggling with. We didn’t let a lot of goals in but we still have a lot of improvement to do,” McDonnell said. “This week we made a big step so hopefully we’ll continue not to let goals in.”

While the defense carried over its success from 2006, the offense had difficulty scoring in both preseason games. After Sunday’s match, Rayfield said she suspected that players struggled to finish their runs because their legs were tired. That won’t be the case on Friday.

“We had a good day off Monday and we worked hard this week and I think we all feel a lot better,” Bell said.

A positive for the Illini attack is the health of the team’s top scorer Ella Masar, who is recovering from a bone bruise in her ankle. Rayfield said Masar is physically ready to go, and will be a much needed catalyst for the offense.

Bell also said the offense has been working to increase offensive pressure.

“One of the things we really want to work on is transition, and getting the midfield up so we can create scoring opportunities,” Bell said.

Bell has made the shift from a forward in 2006 to midfielder for this season, which she described as her “natural position.” Several other players have worked in the preseason at new positions and will play multiple roles. The added depth will help the Illini in their tough non-conference schedule, including this weekend.

“I know how this team works and I know they work extremely hard to get where they need to go,” Rayfield said. “I want to see them set free now and just perform and enjoy competing. That’s the expectations for this weekend because that will lead us into the season.”