Ashley Prell scores late to clinch victory for Illinois soccer in season opener

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Photo courtesy of Della Perrone/Illinois Athletics

Redshirt junior forward Ashley Prell celebrates with team after she scored the game winning goal against Illinois State on Thursday. The Illini won 1-0.

By James Kim, Assistant Sports Editor

Illinois soccer kicked off the official 2022 season on Thursday night at home against Illinois State. In front of a packed Demirjian Park, the Illini put on a show, particularly in the second half, in what ended up being a narrow victory over the in-state rival Redbirds.

“You just want to start in a way that the energy can build,” said head coach Janet Rayfield. “So certainly getting a win tonight starts that snowball of energy that we want to keep going for the rest of the season.”

The first half was by far the more tightly contested of the two, with the Redbirds able to match the Illini evenly when it came to offensive opportunities. While Illinois managed to enjoy possession of the ball for longer stretches, Illinois State remained dangerous, particularly on the counter-attack. The Redbird forwards managed to get put on through after successful through balls split the Illini backline, but sharp goalkeeping from junior goalkeeper Julia Cili kept the score level.

On the other end of the pitch, the Illini frontline was also forcing top saves out of the Redbird defense. Throughout the night, the Illinois wingers dazzled defenders with fancy footwork, but the deliveries into the box weren’t being put in the back of the net.

The second half saw the Illini return from the break with a fire unseen in the first half. In the 55th minute, miscommunication between the Illinois State backline saw the ball fall to junior forward Julia Eichenbaum, who hit the post after a first-time attempt on goal. Fifteen minutes later, Eichenbaum sent a driven ball into the Redbird box towards junior forward Makala Woods, who nearly converted from short range but missed wide of the goal.

The chances just kept on coming as Illinois desperately searched for the tiebreaker. In the 74th minute, sophomore midfielder Maddie Mariani curled a long ranged attempt past the Illinois State keeper only to hit the post. Two minutes later, senior midfielder Eileen Murphy also had her header denied from close range.

The Redbirds had fully parked the bus and frantically repelled attack after attack by the Illini in the final stretch of the match. In the 81st minute, senior defender Aleah Treiterer found herself on the receiving end of a loose ball across the Illinois State box. Treiterer fired a first time attempt only to have it blocked off the line.

In the 83rd minute every Illini fan in the building was given a scare as a Redbirds counter-attack resulted in a shot that beat Cili, only to hit the crossbar.

With a packed house, pounding of the drums and fans screaming for a goal, it was all up to the Illini to find the winner with under ten minutes to play. And they did just that.

In the 85th minute of the match, redshirt junior forward Ashley Prell pulled out the heroics and clinched the victory as Demirjian Park erupted. The ball fell to Prell at the top of the box, who after a quick cut, sent the ball up and over the Redbird goalkeeper and into the far corner.

The dramatic late winner, which was also Prell’s first collegiate goal for the Illini, capped off what was a lively and joyous night for the team.

“Wow, I mean (scoring the winning goal) is pretty indescribable,” Prell said. “I’m so glad we got to put it away. We came out of halftime and we just said ‘we need to keep working, we need to keep working.’ We had a lot of chances so we didn’t give up and it was a team effort of full confidence and belief that if we just kept going we were going to get one.”

Mentioned previously, the atmosphere at Demirjian Park on Thursday night was something special, and it caught the attention of the players and coach Rayfield. The stands were packed and the fans cheered to the pounding of the drums throughout the evening. With strong support pushing the Illini on, a goal always seemed to be just around the corner throughout the match.

“(The atmosphere) was fantastic,” Rayfield said. “You get sort of focused on the game and I don’t know at what moment I looked up and the stands were completely full and the students were beating the drums. This is what you dream about when you think about when Demirjian Park was an idea, to have an environment like this for our teams to play in, so I was really excited to see that come to fruition tonight.”

Illinois, now 1-0 to start this season, will be back in action at home Sunday at 1 p.m. to take on Toledo. This match will serve as Senior Day for the team, who will be celebrating Prell, Treiterer, Murphy, Kendra Pasquale, Summer Garrison and Peyton Willie. Until then, Prell and the rest of Illinois soccer will cherish a memorable season opener.

“I’m so lucky and blessed to be able to play here,” Prell said. “Being a senior, this was my senior opening night game so this will definitely be something I won’t forget. Illini fans always come out and show support so it’s amazing.”

 

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