Defensive-minded Illini have newfound mix of youth, experience

During a pause in play Sunday against Wisconsin, soccer defenseman Christina Farrell took time to assess her situation.

Standing to one side of her was senior Danielle Kot. Last season’s Illini Co-Team MVP and Defensive MVP, Kot has started on Illinois’ back line since her freshman year. Last year, she was the only Illini to play all 1,770 minutes of action.

Farrell then switched her focus to senior Krystin Miller. The team’s co-captain along with Kot, Miller was one of four Illini to start all 19 games last season at defensive back.

And then, Farrell looked behind her, toward goalkeeper Alex Kapicka. After battling sophomore Steph Panozzo, the fifth-year senior recaptured the starting role she once held. Kapicka finished the 2009 season with a 1.38 goals against average, holding opponents to one goal or less in 13 of Illinois’ 19 games. This season she has held opponents to .51 goals per game.

The whistle blew to signify the continuation of play and Farrell’s focus turned back to the game.

In the 57th minute moments earlier, Farrell, a redshirt freshman, had just been substituted for Kassidy Brown after the freshman injured her knee battling for a ball. No one on the team knew it yet, but Brown’s injury was a torn ACL, and she would be out for the remainder of the season.

Farrell hadn’t started all season and rarely played before that point. She had tallied 256 minutes in 2010, 850 less than Miller.

But there she was, among the players who head one of the best defenses in the Big Ten. On the same field as players with such experience and success, she knew everything would work out. Farrell took a deep breath, relaxed and helped the Orange and Blue preserve the Illini’s seventh shutout of the season.

“It’s very reassuring to play alongside players who seem to always know what to do,” Farrell said. “They’ve seen almost everything playing this long.”

Kot echoed similar sentiments with regards to the unity of Illinois’ defense.

“Playing with the same people for so long is a huge part of why we’ve been successful,” Kot said. “We’ve been around each other for forever and we just know when we’re going to step, when we’re going to drop, when someone’s going to go pressure (the ball) or how quickly we can lose space. It’s really helpful to have had that over the years.”

Illinois’ defense starts with head coach Janet Rayfield. Despite being a prominent scorer as a collegiate player, Rayfield, now in her ninth year with the program, has stressed protecting the back of the net since day one.

“If you look at successful teams across the last few years historically, you’ll find goal scoring all over the map, but you’ll find something that’s really common with all of those teams, and that’s that they don’t give up a lot of goals,” Rayfield said.

“If you’re going to build a successful program that’s going to sustain success over a long period of time, a defensive foundation is a big piece of that.”

But Rayfield hasn’t completely abandoned her offensive roots. Illinois stresses the defense’s role in the attack and in return, the offense’s responsibility to help limit goals.

Rayfield said all players are expected to contribute to both sides of the ball. A shutout is a collective effort, and when the team doesn’t get a shot on goal, it’s a collective responsibility.

“For us, we have to understand that one of our strengths, although we are a very stingy defensive team, one of our strengths is actually our attack,” Rayfield said. “We have to be able to do both of those if we’re really going to succeed at the next level.”

Under Rayfield, two Illini defensemen have become All-Americans. Emily Zurrer was a three-time All-American from 2006-08. Currently playing for the Vancouver Whitecaps, Zurrer also earned three All-Big Ten honors during that timespan.

With Zurrer as a member of the back line, Illinois generated 42 shutouts and gave up the second-fewest goals in program history in 2008, allowing just 19.

Christen Karniski, who graduated in 2005, was known for her ability to attack while on defense. In 2004 she had seven points, scoring two goals and recording three assists.

Last season’s Illinois team logged three shutouts and allowed an average of 1.37 goals per game. This year, the Illini have the fifth lowest goals against average in the nation.

“When you establish defense as part of your culture, what you end up establishing is a program, not just at team, that takes a lot of pride in their defending,” Rayfield said.

“So when you do that, then you get a lot of teams that are going after shutout records and fighting hard to keep balls out of the back of the net. And if you do that you always give yourself a chance to win.”