Soccer hits road after big win



By Steve Contorno

Even after knocking off No. 9 Florida last weekend, the Illinois soccer team finds itself just outside the National Soccer Coaches Association of America’s top 25. But with two more tough matches this weekend to round out an already grueling nonconference schedule, the Illini could find themselves back in with the country’s elite if they can come away with two victories.

That won’t be easy.

The Illini (3-2-0) open up their weekend against Kansas, which started the season ranked No. 26 by Soccer Buzz and comes from the Big 12 – a conference the Illini have struggled with the past two seasons. Illinois is 0-4 against the Big 12 the past two seasons, and though Kansas didn’t live up to its high preseason status, going 1-5-1, the Illini aren’t taking the Jayhawks for granted.

“The Big 12 is a really good conference and every time we play a team like that it’s going to be a tough game,” junior defender Emily Zurrer said. “We’ve got to keep doing what we’re doing and come out and play hard against Kansas.”

Following Kansas the Illini will play Indiana State (2-5-0), a team that beat Illinois in 2005. With the game, Illinois will conclude its nonconference schedule, a point head coach Janet Rayfield earmarked as the time the team should begin playing more consistently.

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“I think now it’s making sure that things we showed (against Florida) are a part of who we are,” Rayfield said. “The defensive organization and the team defense we showed on Friday night, some of the attacking ability we’ve shown since the beginning of the season will continue to be reemphasized so that they become second nature.”

Much of the attack Rayfield mentioned has come or resulted in the play of senior forward Ella Masar. After a breakout season in 2006 in which she was named Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year, Masar hasn’t disappointed in her follow-up campaign. The Urbana native has already scored four goals so far in 2007 and has opened up the offense for the rest of the team as well.

“Coming off of Big Ten Player of the Year is one of the most challenging things,” Rayfield said. “Not only has she been marked in terms of defenders but it’s also a lot of pressure on her. If you win the award as a senior you get to walk off and never have to defend your title.

“But she’s playing well and playing with confidence and the goals are coming not because she’s forcing them but because she’s playing with confidence and we’re playing well as a team around her.”

While the offense has found a way to score at least a goal in every game, the defense has looked both stellar and off at times. The Illini have allowed seven goals, all of which came in games against Missouri and now-No. 6 UCLA. The other three games have been shutouts.

“We started off with two shutouts in preseason and we were really confident heading into the season,” Zurrer said. “We had a couple games where we had a couple breakdowns, but I think we’ve been working together really hard and I think we’re back on groove.”

A big part of the defensive resurgence seen in Friday’s 1-0 shutout over the Gators was the play of the midfield. Rayfield stressed the importance of the midfielders in keeping pressure on the ball and working to keep their opponents off their side of the field. That group seems to be doing just that.

“We have a spot called balance and it’s more of a defensive role that has helped us to win balls and then attack,” junior midfielder Marti Desjarlais said. “That we worked on a lot at practice. I think every day we’ve worked with the midfield specifically with a drill so it’s been really helpful.”