Illinois soccer powers into NCAA second round behind Wheatley’s gloves

By Lanre Alabi

After a quarterfinal exit in the Big Ten Tournament it hosted, Illinois (10-8-3) traveled to No. 21 Washington State (14-3-4) to find success at the NCAA Tournament. After 90 minutes of regulation time and two 10 minute periods of overtime, the Illini edged the Cougars 3-1 on penalties to advance to the second round of the tourney. 

Before kickoff on Saturday, heavy snowfall in Washington threatened to postpone the NCAA first round match. The teams braved the uncomfortable conditions to compete, but not without consequence. Due to a mud-logged Lower Soccer Field, Washington State’s home pitch, both sides found it difficult to mount attacks through ground passes. The game was largely played in the air as both teams resorted to aerial passes and shots from distance.

Illinois was ousted from the Big Ten Tournament by Indiana 10 days earlier, conceding five goals in the process. During the postgame interviews, amid tears at what could’ve been the last game of their collegiate careers, several senior players voiced frustration at the team’s slow start and the easy goals they gave up. The first two goals came from identical shots 18 yards out on the left flank and the fourth was struck from around 45 yards away. Illinois’ hopes hinged on the defensive improvements they made to counter the effectiveness of long shots. The midfielders and defenders needed to minimize the space afforded opponents and close down in their own halves. Most importantly, the Illini needed freshman goalkeeper Claire Wheatley to keep those long range efforts out and that is exactly what she did. 

“I was just trying to keep my body behind it and not let anything get past me,” Wheatley said. “Our practices were great, and I was confident so I wanted to just go out there and do it.”

With the lion’s share of possession the Cougars peppered the Illini goal early and often. Washington State outshot Illinois 17-4 forcing Wheatley to make seven first half saves.

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    After 110 scoreless minutes, the shot count read 29-10 in favor of the home team but Wheatley had saved all 11 of the Cougars shots on target to keep her team tied and get the game into penalties.

    Underclassmen Aliina Weykamp and Taylore Peterson scored Illinois’ first two spot kicks and Wheatley saved Washington State’s corresponding kicks. After the Cougars converted their third, Allie Osoba’s miss from the spot on Illinois’ third attempt temporarily closed the gap. After the fourth Cougar penalty sailed high, the Illini’s fate rested on captain Vanessa DiBernardo’s shoulders in her first full game back from injury. The best of five shootout only needed four rounds to decide a winner as DiBernardo scored the decisive spot kick and sent Illinois into a second round match-up against Portland.

    “Claire came up huge today,” coach Rayfield said. “Two big time saves early on and just making sure she got her body in front of things and that’s the kind of thing you have to do in this weather. For a kid from Texas to come up here, play in this type of weather and do the kind of job she did today as a freshman, you have to give her kudos for that.”

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