Homestand will dictate if Illini can still contend

By Steve Contorno

Despite the worst conference opening weekend since her first year in charge, head coach Janet Rayfield insisted there is no panic in her team.

“It seems odd to start the Big Ten season 0-2 and still say we’re pretty confident,” Rayfield said. “It wasn’t two losses where we came back and said, ‘Oh my gosh, we need to rewrite the script.’ It wasn’t major problems; it was small things that we need to do better.”

After falling to Ohio State and No. 11 Penn State last weekend, the Illinois soccer team (5-4-0, 0-2 Big Ten) heads back to Champaign to start a five-game homestand and get back on track toward taking a Big Ten title. A goal, senior forward Ella Masar said, that is still within reach.

“We still think we’re going to win the Big Ten championship,” Masar said. “We got to go 8-0 from here on out, but we love the challenge and we’re going to rise to it.

“I’m still convinced we’re going to get a ring.”

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Before the season, Illinois might have thought this weekend would offer up a pair of easy victories, facing the two teams voted to finish last in the Big Ten. Instead, when the Illini square off with Minnesota (6-3-1, 2-0) on Friday, they will face a team that has won six of its last eight games and opened the Big Ten season with a weekend sweep of the Michigan schools.

Likewise, Iowa (6-1-3, 2-0) started its conference season with two victories against the same opponents.

Rayfield said the Golden Gophers and Hawkeyes proved just how good the Big Ten is top to bottom.

“It’s going to be a competitive Big Ten season,” Rayfield said. “You can see by the first weekend, I don’t know if there is going to be a team that sweeps the Big Ten this weekend. There’s too much parity and too many good teams.”

Playing in the Illini’s favor will be the benefit of staying in Champaign, where the Illini have gone 2-1 this season and have posted at least seven victories during Rayfield’s tenure.

“I feel like we’ve been on the road for months,” Rayfield said. “To be at home, to be in front of our home crowd, and most importantly to get that extra training day is going to make a big difference.”

Senior defender Mary Therese McDonnell said the team has an obvious objective this weekend at home to rebound in the standings.

“We’re going to have to get two wins,” McDonnell said. “That’s the biggest thing. We played really well this past weekend even though the scores didn’t show it. We need to capitalize on the opportunities we’ve been getting.”

Rayfield expects two very different styles of play from the Illini’s opponents this weekend. Minnesota, Rayfield said, will come right at the Illini, most likely led by forwards Lindsey Schwartz and Katie Bethke, who have combined for 30 points on the season. Iowa, on the other hand, will play back and try to clamp down in the defensive third to keep the Illini away from the net.

But no matter which style of play they’ll face, the Illini need to make sure they do one thing.

“We gotta finish,” Masar said. “You go through all these stats and we dominated 60 to 70 percent of them. We hit the post four or five times. When we’re in front of the goal you got to put it in. We worked on it in practice and it’s coming together.”

Masar, Illinois’ top goal scorer, will be playing slightly hampered. A previous injury to the left ankle sustained earlier in the season was re-aggravated last Sunday against Penn State. Rayfield said there is little chance she will be able to keep Masar out of the starting lineup in a Big Ten game and she won’t try to – Masar said she expects to play this weekend

The Illini begin play at 7 p.m. on Friday against Minnesota and will finish with Iowa at 1 p.m. on Sunday.