Julia Cili leads Illinois soccer from the back, embraces pressure as starting goalkeeper

Junior+goalkeeper+Julia+Cili+chases+after+the+ball+during+the+first+half+of+the+game+against+Indiana+State+on+Sept.+4.+Cili+has+made+37+saves+during+the+season+so+far.+

Sydney Laput

Junior goalkeeper Julia Cili chases after the ball during the first half of the game against Indiana State on Sept. 4. Cili has made 37 saves during the season so far.

By James Kim, Assistant Sports Editor

With five wins from its first eight matches, Illinois women’s soccer is off to a strong start in the 2022 season. After what was a difficult campaign last year, the Illini have managed to put the past behind them and get the gritty wins that were absent previously.

A large reason behind the team’s recent success has been the performances of junior goalkeeper Julia Cili. With a whopping 37 saves in the last eight matches, Cili has been a standout player for Illinois.

“I have to give all glory to God for my health and being able to compete at this program,” Cili said. “It’s such a great university and such a great program to compete in.”

Out of all eleven players in the lineup, no one has a role quite like Cili’s. Being the primary shot stopper at a big program like Illinois comes with intense pressure and responsibility, yet Cili is able to take it all in stride, thanks in large part to her teammates.

“The team has just put so much trust in me,” Cili said, “And I’ve put so much trust in them. Having such a great backline and having such a strong team has really just lowered that doubt and has really made me feel confident. I know I want to showcase to them like how they showcase to me.”

In addition to teammates, the Illini coaching staff has played a significant role in helping Cili handle the pressures of playing goalkeeper at the Division I level.

“The coaching staff has been doing such a good job,” Cili said. “I know I’m in good hands with them. I’ve just been doing what they tell me to do and perform. I don’t think there’s as much pressure with as good of a team as we have.”

When watching Illinois in action, it isn’t difficult to notice the level of confidence Cili plays with. She manages to pull off spectacular diving saves and is no stranger to making crucial stops to keep the Illini in the game. Having a top-tier goalkeeper can make the ultimate difference in tight matches, and Illinois have one of the best shot-stoppers in the Big Ten.

Cili and her 37 saves up to this point are currently tied with Purdue’s Sara Kile for most saves by a Big Ten goalkeeper. No one has pulled off more saves than Cili so far and the Illini keeper also ranks as second-best in the conference when it comes to saves per game, recording an impressive average of 4.63 stops per match.

Additionally, Cili has already begun knocking on the doors of previously held Illini program records. Against Notre Dame, the junior pulled off a career-high 13 saves for the third-most saves in Illinois program history during a single match.

“I have to give all the credit to my goalkeeping coach and my other goalkeepers,” Cili said. “They’ve really just been spectacular with their energy and putting trust in me so I really have to give all credit to them. Without them I wouldn’t be competing and I wouldn’t be as strong of a goalkeeper. We really do improve each other every single day.”

With conference play starting back up, Illinois is preparing to prove doubters wrong after what was a disappointing conference run last season. Cili and the rest of the team are relishing the chance to start fresh in the Big Ten and will be heading into the competition with a chip on their shoulders.

“I think this is a brand new team,” Cili said. “The biggest thing that we’ve improved on is our team chemistry. Last year we were kind of foot on the brakes, waiting to see what teams would do. This year we want to go all out because people are doubting our capabilities. The preseason polls came out and we were ranked last in the Big Ten, and it really put a spark in us. We want to show everybody that we’re a team to compete with and we’re a team others should be scared of.”

While Illinois’ 5-2-1 non-conference record has been encouraging, the primary test for the team will be the Big Ten matches. After only managing to win one conference game last year, Cili and the rest of the Illinois squad will be able to run it back with a clean slate in 2022.

The Illini have been managing to find the crucial goals that evaded them last year, and combined with Cili’s top performances in goal recently, the team appear poised to do big things in the Big Ten this season.

“We’ve been really focusing in,” Cili said. “We know the Big Ten is going to be extremely competitive and extremely hard, so we’re feeling good. We think we’re in a good spot and we think we’re going to be in an even greater spot when conference play comes.”

 

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