Illinois soccer aims to protect undefeated record against No. 20 Vols, Washington State

 

 

By Lee Ann Sangalang

Fresh off a winning weekend at home, the Illinois soccer team hopes to continue its success in tournament play this weekend at the First Tennessee Lady Vol Classic. The Illini will play Washington State in the opening round on Friday in Knoxville, Tenn., and No. 20 Tennessee on Sunday.

“We know we’re here for two competitive teams,” coach Janet Rayfield said. “But we get better every game.”

After the team’s Illini Challenge Cup title performance, it moved up three spots in the National Soccer Coaches Association of America poll to No. 15.

This will be the team’s first-ever contest against the Cougars. Washington State is 2-3-1 all-time against Big Ten teams and comes to Knoxville with an undefeated record. It opened its 2008 campaign with a 1-0 victory against Montana. Last weekend, the Cougars came away with two ties against James Madison and William & Mary. Illinois will have to defend Washington State’s balanced attack, as three different players scored the three goals the Cougars have posted this season – Kiersten Dallstream, Emma Stolz and Ali Fenter.

The Illini should have plenty of weapons to use this weekend, and Rayfield’s main focus will be on defense.

“We’re playing with young outside backs,” Rayfield said about her starters on defense. “We’re just getting them understanding and reading the game.”

The Illinois defense has held its opponents’ shot-on-goal percentage to .174 this season, only allowing two goals in three games. The back line is led by senior Jamie Alvis, who earned Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week honors and a spot on Soccer America’s Team of the Week after her performance against Missouri. Illinois also has support in junior Brittany Garrett and freshman Julie Ewing, who have started all three matches this season. Ewing, known to her coaches and teammates as “Juice,” has played three impressive games as a first-year starter.

“I think Julie’s been playing exceptional,” Rayfield said. “She’s still making young mistakes and learning the position, but unlike some kids, she isn’t mad with her mistakes but rather takes them and learns from them.”

Sophomore defender Danielle Kot assisted an Emily Zurrer goal against Dayton. Rounding out the defense is junior goalkeeper Alexandra Kapicka. She posted her first career shutout against Dayton in last weekend’s final. Meanwhile, junior Chichi Nweke leads the team in goals, with one in the season opener against Missouri and one last weekend against Iowa State that moved Illinois to the championship match. Illini senior and Canadian Olympian Zurrer rejoined the team on the field Sunday, not hesitating to make her mark on the season. Zurrer posted the game-winner in overtime on Sunday that gave Illinois the title.

On Sunday, Illinois will face a tough, ranked home team in the Volunteers.

“Even though they’re 1-2 … Tennessee is going to be one of the teams at the top of the rankings at the end of the season,” Rayfield said.