Illinois soccer heads into Big Ten Tournament

By Lanre Alabi

The fifth-seeded Illinois soccer team will begin its journey for the Big Ten title Wednesday after a fighting all season to earn qualification.

“It was a real fight to get in this tournament,” head coach Janet Rayfield said. “Probably better than it’s been in any season in the Big Ten. There’s a new Big Ten regular season champ for the first time in 15 years. … There’s a lot of parity.”

In contrast to previous seasons, this year doesn’t present a clear favorite to win it all. Penn State had finished at the top of the regular season standings for 15 straight seasons until Nebraska dethroned the Nittany Lions this year. There hasn’t been much setting apart a majority of the teams in the Big Ten this year, with only four points separating the middle six in the conference standings. Illinois will need to capitalize on its home field advantage in a bid to claim its second tournament trophy in three seasons.

Throughout the year Rayfield has also emphasized the importance of getting the reps underneath the freshmen’s belts. 

Most of the gaffes earlier in the year were chalked up to inexperience in the college game. But after a full season, Rayfield will be looking to some of those freshmen to step up and assume a more prominent role this postseason.

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    “I want to be able to depend on me, and I want to be there for my team and be a leader in the back,” freshman goalkeeper Claire Wheatley said. “As long as I continue to improve in confidence and communication, I’ll be that for the team.”

    The tournament’s fourth-seeded Indiana is the first opponent Illinois will face.

    Senior midfielder Lisa Nouanesengsy leads the Hoosiers. She posted 10 goals and three assists in the regular season for a team-high 23 points. The teams faced each other earlier this year in Bloomington, Ind., where the Hoosiers claimed a 3-2 victory in a game where Rayfield said the Illini “lost the battle for confidence.” In the game, Illinois saw its 1-0 advantage turn into a 3-1 deficit. 

    For the upcoming match, though, Rayfield is more optimistic about the team’s chance of getting a different result because of its growth.

    “We played them at the time when things were most in flux,” Rayfield said. “We didn’t have a stable backline, we didn’t have a stable midfield, people were figuring out how we were going to fill Vanessa’s void. This team is beyond that now. 

    “There’s some consistency and stability now, and let’s play this game with that and see what Indiana throws at us.”

    Lanre can be reached at [email protected] and @WriterLanre.