Illinois soccer gets shot to rejuvenate season

 

 

By Cody Westerlund

In the spirit of election season, you could say the Illinois soccer team has one final chance to rally its supporters and sway the undecided with this weekend’s Big Ten Tournament.

The Illini (11-9, 5-5) are on the NCAA Tournament bubble and need wins before Monday’s selection of 64 teams. An up-and-down season, in which Illinois came out strong at 9-4 and then struggled mightily during a four-game losing streak on the road, has put the team in the position of needing to help its cause. But with the eight-team, single elimination conference tournament starting Thursday in Iowa City, Iowa, the Illini get a wish they have longed for all season – a fresh start and a final chance to prove themselves.

“You can’t go back and change anything,” junior midfielder Jackie Santacaterina said. “The Big Ten Tournament gives us a chance to play on a clean slate and prove ourselves all over again. There’s a redemption factor for ourselves because we aren’t happy with the way things ended up.”

The first opponent on the ballot is Michigan State (13-5-2, 5-4-1), a team Illinois defeated 3-0 earlier in the season in Champaign and that is winless in its last four games. In the previous matchup of these fourth- and fifth-seeded teams, Illinois used its stout defense to slow the ever-dangerous Spartan offense, and the Illini will have to repeat that performance to win again.

One key to the game Thursday night will be how well Illinois defends Spartan freshman forward Laura Heyboer, who is second in the nation in total goals and first in total points. Although Heyboer is extremely talented, it is her Spartan teammates who concern Illini head coach Janet Rayfield.

“Really what we’re trying to do is not let her teammates serve her good balls,” Rayfield said. “If she doesn’t get a ball in a good position, that’s going to limit the number of opportunities she has. Anticipating the service and winning the ball before she gets it is a big piece of the puzzle.”

To accomplish that, the Illini must do several things they did well in their October victory against MSU, when they limited Heyboer to just two shots.

“Pressure up top by our forwards and pressuring in the midfield to deny the long service will be extremely important,” sophomore defender Danielle Kot said. “If she does get the ball, we must make sure she can’t turn and face us and have a look at goal.”

With back-to-back home wins against Ohio State and Purdue to conclude the regular season, the Illini have built momentum heading into Iowa City. While Rayfield said that will help her team’s psychological confidence, she cautioned that in a one-and-done tournament, momentum only lasts until the first goal is scored. Regardless, the Illini want to prove themselves in what could be a crazy conference tournament.

“Any of the eight teams could come home with the trophy,” Rayfield said. “It’s another chance for us to showcase the kind of team we feel we are.”