Illini soccer preps for must-win weekend against Michigan State, Michigan

With three matches to go and a spot in the postseason tournament on the line, spectators need not remind the Illini soccer team that this weekend is a do-or-die situation.

This sense of urgency has extended itself to practice this week, where head coach Janet Rayfield and her staff have been preaching the importance of playing with offensive and defensive aggression leading up to Friday’s home match against Michigan State and Sunday’s against Michigan.

“We’ve got to defend all over the field as if they are (looking to score) from right there,” Rayfield said. “We defend really hard in our penalty box, but it’s problems up the field that are really exposing us defensively and putting us in situations where it doesn’t matter how good our defenders are.

“They’re must-win games, so I’ve told (the team), ‘If you want a chance for the season to continue you have to defend with your life, not just when they get near the goal but anytime they have the ball.'”

The Spartans (9-3-4, 2-3-2) come into the match fighting for a postseason spot of their own. Last week their playoff push started off on the right foot by way of a come-from-behind win over Minnesota. However, they didn’t come away unscathed, as star forward Laura Heyboer suffered a fractured leg on her game-winning goal. In 2008, Heyboer was the first ever freshman to be named Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year, and this year she was on pace to finish in the top four in the Big Ten in goals and points.

Senior Lauren Hill will look to fill the void left by Heyboer. Hill has tallied eight goals, accounting for nearly a third of the team’s offense.

A lack of scoring is one demon the Illini (6-7-3, 1-4-2) have failed to overcome in the past two games, as the team drew a blank in consecutive matches against Penn State and Ohio State. To solve the problem, players said executing on balls inside the offensive box will be crucial.

“I think one of the biggest things we need to learn is just focusing in the box and putting away our chances because (Sunday’s match) definitely wasn’t a game that we got dominated in,” junior defender Danielle Kot said, referring to a 6-0 loss at Penn State that was evenly played in the midfield. “Staying in the physical battle has been a big part of it, and I think if we can just do those things and put away what comes (to) us in the box, we’ll be fine this weekend.”

The Illini offense figures to have a hard time getting the Spartan defense to make a mistake, as it ranks second in the conference in goals allowed per game with a stingy 0.62 average.

However, as a team Michigan State has proved to be penalty prone, ranking second in the conference in both offsides calls and yellow cards.

Rayfield added the Illini’s focus and energy level will be essential this weekend, as the team has allowed a goal shortly before the halftime whistle in each of the last two games.

“If you look at the Penn State game, we actually had two chances to score with less than a minute and 40 seconds left to score. I think it was a letdown from us not having a chance to make it 1-1,” she said.

Kot said it will be crucial for the Illini to bounce back in the event of an ill-timed goal.

“As soon as it happens, you just have to come right back out. (You have to treat it like) it’s a small mistake in the game and it’s not a big deal, and we’re going to move on past it from there,” she said.

Though Jackie Santacaterina and the other seniors will be playing their last two home games this weekend, she said the group will need to put blinders on and concentrate on the task at hand.

“The fact is that we have to win the next three games,” Santacaterina said. “You have to look past the pressure and just realize that this is our season and we have to fight for it.”