Illinois soccer takes on Big Ten leader



By Cody Westerlund

When the Penn State soccer team arrives in Champaign on Friday, it will not only bring with it a No. 21 ranking and the Big Ten lead, but also the answer to this trivia question: Which team has won the Big Ten regular season title outright each of the last 10 years?

Since Illinois soccer joined the conference 11 years ago, Penn State has simply been dominating, and this year is no different. The Nittany Lions lead the conference once again heading into this weekend and have their sights set on breaking the Illini’s 13-match home unbeaten streak. These are the games the Illinois players look forward when they signed with the Orange and Blue.

“It’s exciting,” sophomore midfielder Christina Sahly said. “Playing Penn State is always a big game. We’re rivals. We really look forward to it. They’re such a good team, it brings out the best in us and that helps us be a better team.”

Junior Jackie Santacaterina added she could “not ask for a better atmosphere” than playing Penn State at home under the lights.

To beat Penn State, the Illini (9-7, 3-4) must overcome their scoring woes, as they have been shut out in three consecutive games. Head coach Janet Rayfield said her team has played well on defense and in the midfield all year, but has failed to execute and make the right decision in the final attacking third at times.

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“We have to fight to get to the end line, and we have to get players in the box,” Rayfield said. “The ‘who’ isn’t as important as the ‘where’ and the ‘what.'”

The biggest advantage for the Illini is their home field, where they are 6-0 this season and averaging more than two goals per game. Friday night’s game is the team’s scheduled “Orange Out,” and Illinois might try to recreate the magic they had the last time the Nittany Lions visited. On “Soccerfest” in 2006, the Illini scored three times in the second half to stage an improbable comeback over then-No. 9 Penn State.

While Illinois is out of the running for the regular season Big Ten title this season, it still has a lot to play for this weekend. The Illini currently sit in a three-way tie for sixth in a conference which only selects eight teams to the Big Ten Tournament. The catch, however, is that ninth-place Iowa receives an automatic bid because it hosts the tournament, which essentially leaves seven spots left to fight for.

On Sunday Illinois faces an Ohio State team (7-7-2) that sits just ahead in the conference standings and is battling for an NCAA tournament berth. As opposed to a Penn State team that will be balanced and try to control the ball, Rayfield said the Buckeyes are content “winning 5-4” and will play an “up-tempo game.”

Rayfield said these games will allow her club to “see what our best is,” which prepares the Illini for the postseason, where teams can not afford letdowns.

“We want to measure ourselves against the best, and historically Penn State has been the best in our conference,” Rayfield said.