Illinois soccer stays in contention after pair of Big Ten wins

The Illinois soccer team played its way back into Big Ten contention over the weekend, earning its first two conference victories of the season.

“It feels really good to be back at .500 in the Big Ten,” goalkeeper Steph Panozzo said. ”We started off against two very hard teams so it was nice to be back at home for once after being away for three weekends and just to be out with our fans and on our home field.”

Coming off the longest road stretch in program history, Illinois defeated Indiana (6-6-1, 2-3-0 Big Ten) 4-1 on Friday and shut out Purdue (4-8-2, 1-3-1) in a 1-0 win Sunday. The two victories gave the Illini (8-4-1, 2-2-1) six points in the Big Ten standings, propelling them to seventh in the conference standings.

“I think six points out of the weekend was almost a must for us to have a chance in the Big Ten and to put ourselves at least in contention,” head coach Janet Rayfield said. “I think it’s going to be a tight race, there’s a lot of teams winning and losing, we needed to put ourselves back on the winning track and be back in a situation to go on the road confident.”

The Illini’s first conference win came as the offense exploded with three goals in the second half to seal the game over the Hoosiers.

“Friday night we played with an incredible sense of rhythm, and we need to do that now on a regular basis,” Rayfield said. “When we have a rhythm, teams have to chase and eventually they sort of wear down.”

“We started out slower in the first half, in the second half we came out and put the game away,” Panozzo said. “Under the lights is always a huge energy, we had another large crowd so that was good we feed off them and got a 4-1 win.”

Friday’s offensive performance was led by Vanessa DiBernardo’s two goals, including the game-winner. The sophomore added a second game-winning goal Sunday for a total of three on the weekend and was named Co-Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week Monday.

After the long road stretch in which the Illini started conference play with two losses and a draw, gaining two home victories was a much-needed confidence boost for the team.

“It’s big because from being on the road a lot we didn’t do very well,” DiBernardo said. “It’s really nice not traveling and playing on your home field, you’re comfortable, the fans are there and you have the support that you want.”

The Illini will look to continue their momentum this week in practice and hope to contain Michigan State (10-3-1, 3-2-0) and its two top goal-scorers as they look to add another victory next weekend.

“I think that, going to play against Michigan State, we really have to get good pressure on the ball,” Rayfield said. “They have a couple of great goal-scorers, I mean obviously Laura Heyboer is a great finisher and a great goal-scorer.

“The easiest way to defend those is to not let them get good service from other players on the field.”

The defense that stepped up against Purdue, recording its second shutout of the season, will have its hands full against Michigan State’s talented goal-scorers Heyboer and Olivia Stander. The two have combined to score 25 of the Spartans’ 29 goals this season.

“If you give players time, they’re going to find Laura Heyboer, and if you find her she’s hard to defend in terms of keeping the ball out of the back of the net,” Rayfield said. “So we have to get pressure on the ball everywhere else on the field.”

Heyboer currently ranks third in conference in goals scored — just one goal behind first.

In this matchup of two talented offensive teams, Panozzo is confident in the Illini’s talented players on both sides of the ball.

“I think our focus will just be focusing on our defensive mentality and our attacking mentality, not what they can do to us but what we can do to them,” Panozzo said.