Soccer to battle two Michigan foes



By Steve Contorno

A week after being mathematically eliminated from winning the conference title, the Illinois soccer team will head to Michigan to gain position in the conference standings before the start of the Big Ten tournament.

The Illini (9-5-1, 4-3-1 Big Ten) open a pair of games against the Michigan schools Friday when they play the Wolverines (3-8-4, 1-4-3) followed by a match against the Michigan State Spartans (6-9-1, 1-7-0) on Sunday.

“Right now the thing we’re looking to do is play the best soccer we can,” head coach Janet Rayfield said. “The thing we can control is how prepared we are for this weekend and how hard we fight. If we can go into the weekend with those two things, then we’re getting ourselves ready for what comes after that.”

What comes after is the Big Ten tournament.

The Illini are in fourth place in the conference, with a chance to move up to third before the tournament if they come away with two victories and Indiana loses both of its games this weekend. Indiana will be playing two of the conference’s top teams while the Illini will be playing two of the worst. With the prospect of swapping seeds with Indiana, the motivation this weekend has changed for the team.

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“In the beginning of the season when we went down two games that first weekend, the first thing I thought was, ‘There’s no way we’re going to come out flat.’ We’re going to play every game even if we can’t get first place,” senior defender Mary Therese McDonnell said. “We still have the Big Ten tournament. We’re going to come out and play no matter what.”

Even with playing the ninth- and 11th-placed teams in the conference this weekend, Illinois knows it still has plenty to prove. Rayfield pointed out that with three ties, Michigan isn’t eliminated from the tournament yet and will be vying for a spot. Also, the team has not had favorable results on the road so far, losing its three conference road games – against some of the league’s best teams – by a combined three goals.

Rayfield said there might be some things the team can do outside of its play on the field to improve its away record.

“We’re going to talk about it and see if there’s a difference in our mental preparation,” Rayfield said. “That’ll be a good thing for us to look at this weekend because obviously the Big Ten tournament is on the road.”

The team will also take a look at the difference in its level of play from Friday to Sunday, Rayfield said, and try to solve its sporadic scoring problems. Illinois is outshooting its opponents 265-139, but hasn’t consistently found the back of the net.

“We should look at that stat and be confident that we’re creating chances,” Rayfield said. “But we should also look at it and say that the next step for us is to be efficient with those opportunities.”

One thing Illinois doesn’t want to change is the pressure it continues to put on opposing defenders.

“With our front runners we pride ourselves on a high work rate,” forward Jessica Levitt said. “We like to play with high intensity and going after defenders, getting them to fear us when we run at them and let them know we’re going to be dangerous.”