Soccer to kick off Big Ten Tournament



By Steve Contorno

It’s been 11 days since the Illinois women’s soccer team has seen colors other than its own on a soccer field. Not since Oct. 28 – a 1-0 victory at Michigan State – have the Illini played in a game that counts.

Now, they count for everything.

The Illini begin postseason play as they kick off the Big Ten Tournament in Minneapolis on Thursday.

Seeded third in the tournament, Illinois has drawn host school Minnesota, the six seed, in the opening round. Head coach Janet Rayfield is aware of the implications of playing the home team when the rest of the tournament participants are on the road, but isn’t focusing on them.

“Our concern is about us,” Rayfield said. “They’re going to have the home field and they’re going to try to get the crowd and energy on their side. So we have to do what we’ve done and not worry about what we can’t control.”

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This will be the second time the Illini face the Golden Gophers this year. In its first Big Ten home game of the year on Oct. 5, Illinois defeated Minnesota 1-0. Another strong defensive effort will be key to coming away with a second victory.

“Our defense is going to have to be solid,” Rayfield said. “Our outside backs are going to be key to stopping them from getting wide on us.

“Transition in the middle will be big, too, on both sides. We need to be able to move the ball forward in the middle and keep them from serving forward on us.”

Another key for the Illini will be senior forward Ella Masar. The Urbana native has the highest goals per game average in the conference at 0.65.

Prior to the layoff, Masar had been on a tear, scoring five goals in the final four games and garnering back-to-back Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week awards. Maintaining play at that level after a week and a half off has been a challenge for Masar and the Illini as a group.

“We really kept things competitive in practice,” Rayfield said. “We brought in the men’s club team to train against to keep things intense. If the last few days are any indicator offensively and defensively, we should be firing on all cylinders.”

If Illinois defeats Minnesota on Thursday, on Friday the team will play the winner of No. 2-seeded Purdue and No. 7-seeded Northwestern, two teams the Illini were not able to defeat during the regular season.

Illinois will also be fighting for a higher seed in the NCAA Tournament, which takes place after the Big Ten tourney. While Rayfield stopped short of saying the team is a lock for the national tournament, she likes her team’s chances.

“As a coach, you don’t think you’re in until you get an automatic bid or see your name in the bracket. But I think we’ve beaten some good teams. We’ve had a good season,” she said.

In anticipation of the Big Ten Tournament, the conference announced its awards for the 2007 season. After sweeping the awards in 2006, Illinois didn’t get any big time hardware, but did get recognition on the All Big Ten teams.

First Team All-Big Ten

Ella Masar, F, Senior

Emily Zurrer, D, Junior

Second Team All-Big Ten

Jackie Santacaterina, M, Sophomore

Mary Therese McDonnell, D, Senior

Big Ten All-Freshman Team

Laura Knutson, F

Cory Steigerwald, M

Danielle Kot, D