Panozzo’s shutout streak key to Illini’s jump in Big Ten standings

The same Illinois soccer team that scored five goals four times this season has scored just four goals in its last four games.

Yet the Illini have won five in a row, playing their way into second place in the Big Ten. Enter Steph Panozzo.

The Maple Ridge, British Columbia native has not allowed a goal in 416 minutes over the last five games, recording 14 saves in those victories and four of her six shutouts on the season.

Illinois soccer goalkeeper Panozzo began this season with just 225 minutes of collegiate playing experience. After playing in the first five games of last season, Panozzo lost the highly-contested starting job to fifth-year senior Alexandra Kapicka.

“I think the minutes that she had last season were obviously vitally important in terms of just her getting an understanding of the college game,” head coach Janet Rayfield said.

Panozzo allowed just one goal last season and teamed with Kapicka to earn three shutouts before Kapicka took over.

“What she and Alex did in terms of training together helped them both,” Rayfield said. “Alex was able to win that starting spot because of experience, but also because of training with Steph because they’re such vital opposites in terms of what their strengths are that their training environment made them both better.

“It made us obviously very good in the goal last year, and it’s helped us to be good in the goal this year.”

Panozzo has been stellar in the goal this season, having already recorded six shutouts, which places her tied with her predecessor, Kapicka, for sixth in Illinois history.

“The growth from the beginning of the season till now, decision making, confidence, I think those things have really grown and expanded through getting time on the field,” Rayfield said. “And I think that has made a huge difference in the last four or five games.”

With her third and fourth straight shutout performances over the weekend, Panozzo was recognized Monday with Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week honors.

“I wouldn’t be able to do it without our back line and with how our team has been playing,” Panozzo said. “Cause what, I had two shots on goal on Friday? So I think it’s a greater reflection on them than it is on me.”

Panozzo has worked with senior Jenna Carosio, sophomore Kassidy Brown and freshman Stephanie Pouse to allow just one goal in the last five games. Their defensive performances have had added importance due to the fact that Illinois has won 1-0 in the last four games. Panozzo’s consecutive shutout streak places her tied, also with Kapicka, for fifth all time in Illinois’ 14-year history.

“It’s not like she is having to make 12 saves a game, and sometimes that for a goalkeeper might be easier because you’re in the rhythm and you’re plugged in,” Rayfield said. “She’s having to make two or three saves to get that clean sheet, and she had come up with them.”

Illinois has recorded the fewest saves in the Big Ten this season. Facing only a few shots a game keeps a goalkeeper on her toes, Panozzo said.

“It makes it different,” Panozzo said. “You have to stay completely focused through the entire game, because there might be that shot in the 90th minute when you haven’t saved a shot since the 10th minute. So it just comes to down always staying focused and ready for anything.”

Panozzo currently ranks first in the Big Ten in shutouts (4) and second in goals-against average (.071). Panozzo largely credits her team for her success in conference play.

“I think everyone has been playing really, really well and we’ve come together,” Panozzo said. “It starts with our forwards, who are attacking up front and denying service up there, and our backs are just shutting everyone down, so it’s been pretty great, it’s been pretty easy for me.”