All or nothing for women’s soccer

By Steve Contorno

Following the familiar setup of March Madness, the NCAA women’s soccer playoffs is a 64-team, win-or-go-home tournament. For six seniors at Illinois, it’s win or go home for good.

“It’s a very emotional feeling,” senior goalkeeper Lindsey Carstens said. “You always think about this in the future but when it really comes down to it it’s a good feeling but a very emotional feeling.

“It could be our last game, but I don’t think it will be and I think we’ll have many more games to come.”

Getting to the next round won’t be easy for the Illini (11-6-2), even though they have won their tourney opener for the past three seasons. Louisville (13-5-2) boasts one of the toughest defenses in the country. Cardinal keeper Joanna Haig leads the nation with a .904 save percentage, and the team has only allowed 10 goals on the season.

“(Haig) obviously has been put to the test,” head coach Janet Rayfield said.

“When you lead the nation in save percentage you’re getting called a lot, but she’s obviously answered that call. We’re going to face a very solid defensive team that’s faced a pretty tough Big East schedule.”

Illinois boasts an impressive backfield of its own. The Illini defense is 10th in the nation in shutout percentage. With two strong back lines, the game may come down to whoever can score first. All of the Illini’s victories have come in games where they got on the board first. The health of senior forward Ella Masar is especially important if that becomes the case. Masar, who missed almost the entire Big Ten Tournament with a hamstring injury sustained in the opener, leads the team in both goals and game-winning goals. She should be ready to play on Friday against the Cardinals. Though Rayfield has plenty of other weapons, she definitely doesn’t mind having her leading scorer ready for the national tournament.

“One of the thing’s we’ve proven is that we can score goals without Ella,” Rayfield said. “I don’t know if there’s many teams in the country that have 14 different goal scorers on their roster. That’s something we pride ourselves in, that we score goals without Ella on the field.

“On the flip side, I expect her to be on the field and her presence on the field makes us more dangerous. It gives Louisville a lot of problems they have to deal with.”

Masar is still tight, but on Monday she said she would receive treatment five to six times a day and won’t be held off the field for the final stretch of her career.

“Last chance so you gotta go for it,” Masar said.

If Illinois can defeat Louisville on Friday, it will play the winner of Loyola (Ill.) and host school Notre Dame on Sunday for a chance to move on to the round of 16. To do so the Illini will have to bounce back from a loss in the Big Ten Tournament as well as a disappointing finish in the Big Ten standings.

“We haven’t gotten what we wanted this year.” But according to Masar, “Now we start over and forget about the past and move on. Everybody’s 0-0.”

Kick-off for the Illini is at 4 p.m., Friday in South Bend, Ind.