Illini soccer’s defensive focus shines in opener



By Lee Ann Sangalang

Work on the Illinois offense was put on the back burner at the end of last season to make time for defensive improvements. After graduating three experienced defenders and their goalkeeper, the extra work on defense proved beneficial for the Illini on Saturday, when they allowed only one attempted shot on goal in their opening match against Missouri.

Illinois avenged its 3-1 loss to the Tigers in 2007 with a 2-1 overtime win in Columbia, Mo.

“The reason we play Missouri early on is because they are a great test,” said head coach Janet Rayfield. “Missouri exposed some things we need to fix, but it was a great start for our offense and a boost of confidence for our defense which we’ve been focusing on in practice.”

The Illini struck early on, with a goal from midfielder Marti Desjarlais off an assist from junior forward Chichi Nweke.

“(Desjarlais) came out and put the ball in the right place,” said Rayfield. “We were under the pressure, and she definitely relieved that a little bit when she put one in, and also took some wind out of their sails.”

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    Illnois, ranked No. 19 in the NSCAA preseason rankings, had two chances to increase its lead after Desjarlais’ goal, but a shot by Jordan Hilbrands went wide and another by Desjarlais was saved by Missouri goalie Tasha Dittamore. Missouri tied the game 1-1 at the beginning of the second half with a goal by Michelle Collins.

    The teams remained in a stalemate at the end of regulation until Nweke gave the Illini the win with an assist from Laura Knutson in the extra period.

    “Overtime is definitely tough mentally, and you’re always so exhausted,” said Desjarlais. “It was great to come out there and score within the first five minutes. We call them ‘Big 5 Moments,’ and that was definitely one of them.”

    Nweke ranked second in assists for the team last year as a sophomore.

    “It’s all about creating opportunities to be dangerous, not only for myself, but for the team,” said Nweke.

    Rayfield will look to Nweke this season to help set the tone as well.

    “Chichi has to be dangerous,” said Rayfield. “She’s hard to defend. She can get behind the ball well and is a natural defender. We’re going to rely on that a lot this season.”

    Rayfield acknowledged Illinois’ hard work on its defensive game in practice after losing senior defenders from last season. The Illini had nine shots on goal.

    Senior defender Jamie Alvis, as well as senior forward Jessica Levitt, also had significant contributions.

    “Jamie had one of the best games of her career,” said Rayfield. “We needed her experience in the back and her performance was definitely noteworthy. Jess Levitt put a lot of pressure on their defenders and created a lot of opportunities for us.”

    Alvis, Levitt and Desjarlais are expected to carry on the tradition left by the 2007 seniors.

    “They certainly left a big impact on this program,” said Desjarlais. “We hope to carry on that legacy, and there is a lot of potential in the freshmen, too.”

    The Illini will open their home schedule at the Illini Challenge Cup against Iowa State on Aug. 29.