Illinois soccer advances to NCAA tournament

By Alex Ortiz

Following a first-round exit from the Big Ten Tournament, the Illinois soccer team (10-8-2, 5-5-1 Big Ten) received an at-large bid to advance to the NCAA Tournament. 

Illinois will play Washington State (14-3-3, 7-3-1 Pac 12) at 3 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 16, in Pullman, Wash.

“(There was) certainly excitement from the underclassmen, relief for the seniors,” head coach Janet Rayfield said. “And a little bit of both from me.”

It will be the Illini’s fourth straight NCAA Tournament appearance and its 12th overall. The Illini are 4-7-0 against opponents in this year’s tournament. They are also 10-11-2 in its previous NCAA Tournament matches. The Illini have advanced to the Sweet 16 three times, but have not gotten past the second round in the last three seasons.

Illinois was one of eight Big Ten teams to make it to the NCAA Tournament, a conference record. Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Nebraska, Ohio State and Penn State also advanced. The Illini finished tied for fifth in the Big Ten.

The team gathered together in private to view the selection show and when the team was revealed as a selection, the room erupted in joyful screams.

“Well personally, I was tearing up at first,” senior midfielder and defender Kassidy Brown said. “It’s like thinking the worst thing was going to happen. 

“When it started getting towards the end, I hate to say it but, I was kind of losing hope.”

The berth gives another senior the chance to continue her college career after a knee injury that took her out an entire month.

“We were one of the last names to be called so we were kind of all just sitting there, hoping that we’d be called,” senior midfielder Vanessa DiBernardo said. “But as soon as we saw our name up there, everyone jumped up and down.”

DiBernardo said the team will just be focusing on itself in preparation because this team has not played Washington State. Illinois won its only match against Washington State back in 2008, 1-0.

The winner of the match will go on to play the winner of the Seattle/Portland match in the second round.

The Cougars finished second in the Pac-12 in 2013. This is the third consecutive year they have made the NCAA Tournament and their fifth appearance in the last six years.

“To get a new life, to wipe the slate clean and say, ‘You got a chance in the NCAA Tournament.’ That’s what everybody hopes for,” Rayfield said. “We’re excited to see our team, and we’re excited to get after it and to have this team with sort of a new life. We’re going to make the most of it.”

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