Illini wrassle down Gators for upset



By Steve Contorno

The Illinois soccer team found itself tied at zero against the ninth-best team in the country 83 minutes into the contest.

By the 84th minute, they had all but clinched the game.

The Illini (3-2-0) defeated No. 9 Florida (3-2-0) on Friday 1-0 in front of the second-largest home crowd in the program’s history. Senior forward Ella Masar scored the game’s only goal on a breakaway with just under seven minutes remaining.

“I had faith we’d put it in the back of the net,” Masar said. “We were going all out every minute of this game and at halftime (head coach Janet Rayfield) said, ‘Keep hammerin’, keep hammerin’, keep hammerin’. You guys can get it in,’ and we did.”

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For the 1,264 fans watching in the first period, the Illini displayed what Rayfield described as “the best half of soccer” they’ve played all season. Illinois constantly pressured the Gators into turning the ball over, creating a seemingly endless attack for the Illini offense. The Illini outshot and outcornered the Gators, who were only able to challenge goalkeeper Lindsey Carstens one time with a shot on goal.

“We dominated most of the game,” Masar said of the victory. “We came out here physically and we took it to them. And that’s all you can do. It’s your home turf in front of amazing fans and we went at them for 90 minutes and we came out victorious.”

With the game broadcasted on Big Ten Network, both teams had the benefit of a TV timeout midway through each half. The Illini offense flowed so well and was rested enough from the extra stoppage that Rayfield didn’t even substitute until nearly 30 minutes into the game when freshman Laura Knutson checked in.

Even with the offense in synch during the first half, Illinois wasn’t able to finish its attacks with a goal.

Sophomore forward Chichi Nweke seemed to be on the brink of a scoring chance twice, but was called for offsides on both tries. Other chances for the Illini ended in missed opportunities, as well.

“We had a lot of chances in the first half that we should have put away,” Rayfield said. “Their goalkeeper, I thought, did a great job in the first half.”

With the defense at top form, the offense just needed to find a way to score.

“Our shape was better in the back – our reading when we didn’t have pressure and dropping to keep them in front of us,” Rayfield said. “(Florida forward Ashley Harris) made it tough. She was flowing in and out of our line and (we did a much better job tonight) keeping her from getting in behind us.”

The strong play of the defense trickled all the way to the front as the forwards and midfielders kept up constant pressure on the Gators.

“All practice this week we worked on team defense as a whole,” forward Jessica Levitt said. “As long as everyone’s going and doing the right things, as soon as someone breaks through, goals happen because of it.”

The victory put the Illini on the positive side of .500 for the first time this season. The victory is also Illinois’ first against a ranked opponent this season.

“We know we can be there with top-10 teams and these wins prove that we can be there,” Levitt said. “We’re gonna come out looking for those top spots now.”