Soccer hangs on to make postseason

Illinois+Janelle+Flaws+%283%29+looks+for+a+pass+during+the+game+against+Michigan+at+Illinois+Track+and+Soccer+stadium+on+Sunday%2C+Oct.+26%2C+2014.+Flaws+was+granted+a+sixth+year+of+eligibility+by+the+NCAA+on+Monday.

Illinois’ Janelle Flaws (3) looks for a pass during the game against Michigan at Illinois Track and Soccer stadium on Sunday, Oct. 26, 2014. Flaws was granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA on Monday.

For the Illinois soccer team, Oct. 5 was the end of a promising run.

Illinois stood at 9-3-0 and was facing a Northwestern team that hadn’t won a game against any of its previous six Big Ten opponents, including a 4-1 thrashing at the hands of Penn State a week prior. 

However, head coach Janet Rayfield’s team had a rude awakening at the end of those 90 minutes. 

It was the day senior striker Jannelle Flaws seemed mortal again, after scoring 12 goals in the 11 games leading to that chilly evening in Evanston, Illinois. Flaws was unable to shake the opposition’s defense — she didn’t score that night. Illinois outshot Northwestern 17-11, but it was two long-distance efforts from the Wildcats’ Addie Steiner that would doom the Illini. NU ended as 2-0 winners that evening, their first win in the Big Ten. It was a loss that, at least on paper, wasn’t supposed to happen. Now, it has become part of a series of results that haven’t seemed to make much statistical sense. 

For Rayfield and her squad, this game would prove to be the turning point of a season that, in just some three weeks, has unraveled before their eyes. Getting back to playing good, lucky soccer hasn’t been easy since.

“We weren’t focused on the results, we were focusing on ourselves and playing great soccer,” Rayfield said. “We did the things that we needed to do to win, and we have to continue to do that and not get away from that in an effort to win a game. Because we sort of did that at Northwestern, and we saw how well that turned out.“

The cards still haven’t quite lined up right for the Illini. Statistically, the reasons behind Illinois’ struggles don’t make much sense.

Through 18 games this season, Illinois has thoroughly outshot its opponents 274-176. Goalkeeper Claire Wheatley has been forced to make fewer saves than all of Illinois’ opposing goalkeepers, 62. Illinois has won more corner kicks than its opponents, 76-61. Jannelle Flaws has scored the second-most goals in the country and more than any other player in the Big Ten. Illinois has outshot all but three of its opponents in its seven losses so far this season, the exceptions being Penn State, Rutgers and Notre Dame, all ranked higher than No. 35 in the country. Only two Big Ten teams have scored more goals than the Illini.

However, the one statistic that truly matters, and one that could leave Illinois out of the NCAA tournament, doesn’t favor the Illini: a 5-6-1 conference record. Off to its best start in school history late in September, the team has tailed off from the level of play that garnered it a top-20 position in the NCAA rankings. That’s a position the Illini sorely wish they were in right now, as they need at least one more victory and a strong performance in the Big Ten tournament to secure a berth in the NCAA Tournament. It would mark only the third time under Rayfield that the team would miss the tournament.

Now, with the season down to the wire, Rayfield won’t be looking to statistics to provide the guiding light to success. Instead, it’s the adversity the team has fought through and the experience her younger players have attained that she will rely on to get the results needed to make the playoffs. After recent games, in which Illinois has played more like it did at the beginning of the season, Rayfield said that the time is gone to examine pass results.

“We’ve been able to sort of spread our experience out now,” Rayfield said. “We really have done better on focusing on the things that we do well and the things that we need to do in that moment in a game and I think if we can continue to do that, then we can win some games.”

Eliseo is a sophomore in FAA. He can be reached at [email protected]