Soccer to begin conference play



By Steve Contorno

Following a productive, but up-and-down nonconference schedule, the Illinois soccer team will start the Big Ten season this weekend against Ohio State and Penn State.

The Illini (5-2-0) played a tedious opening seven games, facing three top 25 teams but only coming away with a victory in one of them – a 1-0 upset against Florida. After winning four games in a row, things won’t get any easier for the Illini in the opening weekend of Big Ten play. One of their opponents, No. 13 Penn State, finished first in both the Big Ten regular season and tournament and was voted the favorite to top the standings again by the conference’s coaches this preseason.

Illinois head coach Janet Rayfield knows the road ahead is a difficult one.

“Fireworks would be the best way to describe this because this weekend will open up the Big Ten with a bang,” Rayfield said. “But you could look at this as a really challenging way to start the Big Ten season or an exciting way. We’re embracing every challenge that the Big Ten schedule gives us this year, including playing Ohio State and Penn State on the road right out of the gates.”

Illinois was ranked No. 10 last season when it played Ohio State, which gave the Illini their first conference loss. Friday’s showdown with Ohio State shouldn’t be any easier, as the Buckeyes have yet to lose at home this season.

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“You know Ohio State is coming out to play the best they can,” Rayfield said. “They’re coming off a tough road trip so they’re excited to be back at home to open the Big Ten season. You know you’re going to get a fired up Ohio State Buckeye team.”

Although the Illini got the best of the Nittany Lions during the regular season, Penn State had the last laugh in ’06, taking home the regular season title and beating Illinois in the Big Ten Tournament.

“Last year we got, not robbed, but the Big Ten was right there in our reach and we didn’t get it,” senior forward Ella Masar said. “Last season Penn State came here and we proved ourselves, now we gotta prove ourselves out there.”

The Illini beat Penn State during the 2006 regular season when Masar scored the tying and game-winning goals to defeat the Nittany Lions 3-2. The key to defeating Penn State this year might be to make it a low scoring affair. The Illini have yet to lose a game when keeping opponents to less than two goals. That might prove difficult as the Nittany Lions have outscored opponents 12-6 this season and are rolling after a big win against Notre Dame.

Penn State also holds a 15-2 edge against the Illini in the series.

“There’s always been a respectful rivalry between us and Penn State,” Rayfield said. “We respect their history and the success they’ve had in the conference. I’m sure they’re looking at last year’s game and have come to respect us. We’re both going after the same thing and only one out of 11 teams can grab it. That brings a very healthy rivalry when we show up at State College.”

With the Big Ten schedule in front of them, that one thing every team is grabbing for is the only objective in mind for the Illini.

“Championship. That’s pretty much our main goal set in our minds,” junior defender Emily Zurrer said.