Soccer looking to ‘dominate’ Big Ten-leading Buckeyes

When the Illinois soccer team takes the field Thursday night, it will have a chance to solidify its status as one of the Big Ten’s elite.

Coming off a 2-1 overtime victory against Iowa, the Illini (10-2-1, 3-2-1 Big Ten) will travel to Columbus, Ohio, looking to take down an Ohio State team that has been on a tear of late. The Buckeyes (12-2-1, 6-0-0) are sitting on top of the Big Ten standings, have won seven straight games and 12 of their last 13, and have rapidly moved up the NSCAA rankings to No. 17. Illinois senior co-captain Danielle Kot looked at the game as an opportunity for the Illini to prove themselves.

“I think coming off Iowa, we’re ready to set a standard of who we are, and I think that energy will be brought to the OSU game more than anything else,” she said.

Entering the season, expectations for the Illini were low and they were picked to finish seventh in the Big Ten. But after Saturday’s win against Iowa, they are tied for fourth in a tight race for the Big Ten Championship and have moved up to No. 13 in the nation. In the process they have often dominated, outscoring opponents 25-7 and outshooting them 246-124.

However, the Illini have yet to defeat a Big Ten team with a conference record above .500. They’ll get that chance against an Ohio State team that has been just as statistically dominant as Illinois, with a scoring differential of +20 on the season, and is the highest-ranked opponent the Illini have faced. Nevertheless, junior defender Julie Ewing was more concerned mainly with her team’s performance.

“For us, our biggest challenge is figuring out who we are and sticking to that,” she said. “We try not to think about our opponent too much.”

Illinois head coach Janet Rayfield also refrained from saying Thursday’s match was made more important because of their opponent.

“Every win’s important. Every game’s important,” she said. “If we start focusing on if this game’s more important or what the score of another game is, we’re going to put ourselves in a situation we don’t wanna be in.”

Still, a loss to Ohio State would put Illinois two games back in the loss column and four wins behind the Buckeyes with only four games remaining on the Illini’s schedule.

Kot said experience would help Illinois deal with the pressure of a game with big implications.

“A lot of people are saying this is a really big game so maybe the freshmen are feeling more pressure than normal, maybe not,” she said. “But I think the upperclassmen can really help keep the game composed especially from the back. Experience can help keep the game composed, and we can help take that pressure off and take that responsibility off the freshmen and the other underclassmen.”

And while dealing with the pressure of a big game is tough, what may be even tougher is scoring on Buckeyes goalkeeper Rachel Middleman. The reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Week has an 11-0 record and an average goals against of .38 on the season.

“We have to impose our style. We have to keep the ball and we have to move the ball,” Rayfield said. “If we move the ball and have the mobility we’ve had throughout the season then we can break down their defense and hopefully get a good shot on goal.”

Making a victory even more difficult to come by is the journey to Columbus, where Ohio State hasn’t lost a game since its season opener. Kot welcomed the challenge.

“Especially since we’re playing away we’ll want to show that even though it’s their field, we’re here to dominate them,” she said.