Illinois soccer to travel to Washington State for NCAA tournament

By Alex Ortiz

The slate has been wiped clean for the Illinois soccer team.

When the NCAA Tournament Selection Show revealed Illinois as one of the teams in this year’s tournament, the Illini reacted with both joyous relief and uncertainty toward their opponent, Washington State.

The last time the two teams met was back in 2008, before any of the Illinois seniors were with the team. But the players and coaches have said this could be a positive for the team, because the players can focus on themselves, unlike last year when they were matched up against North Carolina, the eventual NCAA champions.

“I’m thinking of last year when we saw North Carolina in our bracket, all of us were like, ‘Oh shoot,’” senior midfielder and defender Kassidy Brown said. “But this is kind of like … we don’t know much about the team, so we’re not going in scared, so it’s good.”

Illinois has its checklist of areas in need of attention. When the team lost to Indiana in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament, it allowed five goals. As a whole, the team has acknowledged that an overall defensive improvement is necessary to be successful. Young players like freshman goalkeeper Claire Wheatley will have an opportunity to make up for a disappointing showing against the Hoosiers.

Offensively, the Illini are already improving because senior midfielder Vanessa DiBernardo will have had over a week’s worth of recovery time on her left knee sprain. It is also time to get back into better game shape. Head coach Janet Rayfield said DiBernardo is improving even more mentally as she was able to play 64 minutes against Indiana. Rayfield noted that DiBernardo became more confident in her leg, which was still in a large brace, as the match went on.

Outside of freshman defender Hope D’Addario, who is still out with a broken collarbone, the rest of the team will be ready for Saturday’s match. This will also give junior forward Jannelle Flaws, senior forward Megan Pawloski and sophomore forward and midfielder Nicole Breece the opportunity to benefit more from DiBernardo’s presence in the midfield, something they have not had a lot of this season.

“We’re going in there, I think, with the best team we’ve had since midway through the season,” Rayfield said.

Washington State will be one of the most complete teams Illinois has faced in 2013. The Cougars finished second in the Pac-12 standings with a conference record of 7-3-1 and 14-3-3 overall. They also scored the third most goals and allowed the second fewest goals in the Pac-12. Senior forward Micaela Castain tied for the lead in goals (11) and led the conference in assists (11) and points (33). Junior goalkeeper Gurveen Clair’s 12 shutouts were a school record and led the Pac-12.

While Rayfield continues to study up on the Cougars, she also said Illinois will have to make some physical adjustments off the pitch. Since the match will be held in Pullman, Wash., the Illini will try to adjust their sleep schedules “just a little bit.”

But mostly, Illinois is determined to forget the past and take advantage of the opportunity afforded to them.

“I think (we need to) put frustration aside,” Flaws said. “I think a couple of games this season we’ve been so worried about ‘What if? What if?’ about the NCAA tournament, so now I think it’s a chance for us to relax and just settle down and play the way we’re playing.”

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