Illini soccer opponents taking note of Flaws’ performance

After missing last season with an ACL tear, junior forward Jannelle Flaws has been on a roll this season. Against Wisconsin on Saturday, she scored her 14th and 15th goals to propel the Illinois soccer team to the 3-2 win.

Flaws’ 15 goals in 14 games are the most in the Big Ten. She is also the conference leader in points, points per game, shots and shots per game. Flaws is also tied for second in the nation in goals with Rachel Daly of St. John’s.

As Flaws continues her offensively dominant season, she is paying for it physically. Opposing defenders have taken notice and have stepped up the physicality with which they defend Flaws.

Even the first goal the Illini scored Saturday happened because of Flaws’ dangerous run in the box. She collided with a Wisconsin defender and took a hard fall and was on the ground for several seconds. Sophomore midfielder Taylore Peterson converted the penalty kick because Flaws was too shaken up to take the kick. Flaws was subbed out soon after but came back very quickly and played a total of 79 minutes. This was the first time in five matches in which Flaws did not play every minute.

Following her two-goal performance against Wisconsin, Flaws acknowledged that there was still work to do on her part, despite her impressive season so far.

“I think I definitely could have done better,” she said. “(With) certain finishing situations and just passing situations.”

Flaws is currently tied for third on Illinois’ all-time single season record list in goals. She needs just three more to match Emily Brown’s 18 goals scored during the 1999 season.

Rayfield continues to move and rely on different pieces

Against Wisconsin, seniors Vanessa DiBernardo and Kassidy Brown were out of the starting lineup. DiBernardo continues to recover from a knee sprain she suffered against Iowa on Sept. 27 and Brown missed the match to attend her sister’s wedding.

Situations like these have forced head coach Janet Rayfield to dig deep into the roster. Sophomore midfielder Megan Green recorded only her second start against Wisconsin last Saturday. Junior midfielder Noelle Leary, who only totaled 16 minutes on the field in her first two years, played 58 minutes. Other players like freshman midfielder Allison Stucky and sophomore midfielder Anastasia Medellin have been subbing in more frequently over the past few matches.

“Certainly that’s a place where, without Vanessa’s presence, there’s a lot of work that has to be done in that midfield to make up for someone like Vanessa in terms of the workload,” Rayfield said.

Among the slightly more veteran players, sophomore defender Amy Feher took more of a midfielder role Saturday. She ran all over the field to help pick up the slack in the midfield while also blocking shots and marking opponents on defense. Rayfield also said Peterson has had to bear more of the work recuperating the ball and starting possessions in the midfield as well.

To sustain offensive production, wing defenders are encouraged to help out when needed. Those long runs free up midfielders to occupy opposing defenders and create scoring opportunities. Rayfield has given players, like Feher, license to attack when she sees fit.

“She definitely let’s me do what I want to do a little bit,” Feher said. “As in, like if I feel like I want to attack, I kind of just go.”

Even Brown’s absence in the back forced senior defender Christina Farrell to move to the outside and sophomore Aliina Weykamp, who is usually a midfielder, to defender.

DiBernardo’s status for Thursday’s match at Northwestern remains uncertain and is still day-to-day. Although Northwestern is at the bottom of the Big Ten standings, the Illini are not taking any Big Ten opponent lightly because they want to play in the Big Ten tournament, which they are hosting. Even without a complete roster, Rayfield knows a full-team performance is needed from here on out like she saw against Wisconsin.

“There’s a lot of people now who performed in a way even better than what they had been and played with a little bit more composure,” Rayfield said. “I think right now everybody’s going to have to play well for us to be successful in games like this.”

Alex can be reached at [email protected] and @AlexOrtiz2334.