Illinois soccer suffers gut-wrenching loss

By Cody Westerlund

In a game that was a microcosm of its entire season, the Illinois soccer team lost a 1-0 heartbreaker to Michigan State in penalty kicks in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten Tournament on Thursday night in Iowa City, Iowa.

As they have so many times throughout the year, the Illini (11-9) struggled to finish scoring opportunities and came up just short. After a scoreless 110 minutes of soccer, the Illini lost 4-3 in a nerve-wracking, seven-round penalty kick shootout that leaves their season hanging in the balance as the NCAA Tournament selection process looms.

“It was very typical of the season. It was a hard fought match, end to end,” head coach Janet Rayfield said. “There were chances on both sides and with these two teams to end up in a 0-0 scoreless tie with one of the leading scorers in the country and an attacking team like ours, I really think the score was indicative of the battle.”

The teams traded missed shots in the first round of penalty kicks. MSU attacker Laura Heyboer, the nation’s second leading goal scorer, then was stopped by Illinois goalie Alexandra Kapicka. After each team converted twice in their next three chances, the Illini’s Danielle Kot had a chance to win it, but her shot hit the post and bounded away.

After the even best-of-five format, the teams went to a best-of-one scenario. The Spartans pulled it out in the seventh round of shots when they converted and Illinois defender Jamie Alvis’ shot was stopped. The final score of penalty kicks was 4-3.

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    “To win soccer games you have to score on the chances that you have and neither one of us did that tonight,” Rayfield said. “When you get into PK’s you leave it up to a coin toss and let someone else control your destiny. It’s a tough way to lose a match but it’s always tough to lose at this time of the year no matter how it is.”

    But as the Illinois defense has been all year, it remained stellar. It held a potent MSU offensive attack to 12 shots, but only five of those came on frame and Heyboer was held in check with just three shots. Kapicka was brilliant all night, saving five shots and making several more great stops in penalty kicks.

    “We had practiced (penalty kicks) all week,” Kapicka said. It was something I knew I was going to do. I just tried to execute but unfortunately it didn’t go our way. It’s about chances and just throwing your body and hoping you get there, and yeah I stepped up and saved a couple but I guess this is just how it goes.”

    The NCAA Tournament pairings will be announced Monday evening, but Illinois sits squarely on the bubble. Typically, three to five teams from the Big Ten make the NCAA Tournament.

    Illinois finished fifth in conference and played a strong nonconference schedule, but an 11-9 record might not make the cut. However, one thing the Illini do have going for them is their strong RPI. In the most recent rankings, the team stood at No. 27.

    Regardless, the Illini will have to sweat through the selection show as the field of 64 is announced.