Illini soccer opens Big Ten play

By Cody Westerlund

The beautiful crossing pass that glistens in the night sky before a streaking attacker heads it into the back of the net?

Yes, you can still expect to see that from the Illinois soccer team this weekend. But strap yourself in for the pushing, shoving and slide tackles that are sure to abound as the Illini open up their Big Ten season.

“It’s going to be a dogfight,” head coach Janet Rayfield said. “There’s not going to be an easy game. Soccer’s one of those sports where the scoring and games, there’s just never a given.”

As the Illini (6-3) open their Big Ten schedule this weekend at Wisconsin (6-2-1) and at Northwestern (5-2-2), high expectations await. Illinois was picked to finish second in the preseason coaches conference poll, behind defending regular-season champion Penn State.

The team wants something more though – a Big Ten championship and nothing less.

“This team has been preparing for this for a long time,” junior goalkeeper Alexandra Kapicka said.

“We’re excited to get started and go after a Big Ten championship. We want to lead the Big Ten in goals scored and goals against, too.”

Getting off to a good start will be important for Illinois, which played catch up last year after dropping two straight tough road games to open conference play. This team is determined not to let that happen, and an easy start to its schedule won’t hurt.

The Badgers were picked to finish ninth in the conference and the Wildcats were came in 10th.

Still, Illinois is not overlooking these two opponents that have played well of late.

“Any team can win on any day, so we cannot look at their record or where they are supposed to finish,” Kapicka said.

Rayfield predicted the rankings will shake up this year in the Big Ten because so many teams are improving.

“The usual for this conference is starting to change,” she said, citing Minnesota’s 10-game win streak to open the year.

“There’s going to be upsets based on our preseason poll, there’s going to be upsets based on records teams have had up until this time.”

If the Illini are to shake their way to the top, they will have to be ready for physical play.

“In the Big Ten, teams are willing to do just about anything to win, so it’s more physical,” said junior forward Chichi Nweke, who expects to be close to 100 percent after an ankle sprain last weekend.

“You just have to dig a lot deeper to get the win.”

Kapicka knows the play changes when the team begins its conference schedule.

“There’s a higher level (of competitiveness) in the games,” Kapicka said. “It’s more physical. Every team is going to battle for every ball in the air and on the ground.”

After last season’s third-place showing, the pieces are in place for the Illini to make a strong run this year at the conference title.

“We feel like we have the talent.” Rayfield said.

“We have the personnel, it’s just a matter of us putting together a whole season.”

Rayfield said versatility will be one of the Illini’s strengths.

“We can possess the ball and break you down to score goals, we can isolate you, we can score off restarts and we can score off quick counter attacks,” Rayfield said.

“That is going to be the secret to us being really successful throughout the Big Ten.

“The first weekend is always a real challenge. I don’t think it matters who it was (opponents), the first weekend in the Big Ten is a significant weekend.”