Illini soccer beat Badgers, advance to Big Ten semifinals


Daily Illini File Photo

Seniors Carolina Ratz (8) and Hope Breslin (10) high-five to celebrate a goal against Northern Illinois on Aug. 26. The Illini won 8-0.

By Miles Powers-Huang, Assistant Sports Editor

When the Illinois soccer team last took the field at McClimon Soccer Complex in Madison, a 104th-minute game-winning goal from Wisconsin junior forward Dani Rhodes sunk the Illini 1-0 in the second period of extra time.

As the teams squared off again at the same location in Sunday’s Big Ten Tournament Quarterfinal, the Illini were determined to turn the results in their favor this time around.

After compiling 11 total wins in the previous two seasons combined, head coach Janet Rayfield’s team racked up 11 in 2018 alone, but they were not going to approach Sunday’s tilt with a “just happy to be here” mentality.

“This isn’t the end,” Rayfield said at her Oct. 22 press conference. “This is just a chance to get to the table and now that they’re at the table, (they) gotta start and finish this job.”

The team gained the ideal start after winning a penalty kick 30 minutes into the game.

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Senior Katie Murray, possibly playing in her last game as an Illini, stepped up to spot and slotted home a low-placed shot to the left-diving goalkeeper’s right, putting the Illini up 1-0.

The lead would not last long though, as the Badgers earned a penalty of their own just five minutes later.

Although Illinois goalkeeper Jaelyn Cunningham dove correctly to her right, Rhodes, the hero from Wisconsin’s last meeting, hit a shot that was too hard to stop and the score was knotted at 1-1.

The teams went into the halftime break tied, and with the result still up for grabs in the second half, it looked as though Wisconsin could snatch the victory early on. After winning a corner kick, Badger junior Claire Shea played a cross into the box that found sophomore Cameron Murtha’s head and deflected into the back of the net.

Similar to the first half in which one team copied the other’s method of scoring, Illinois had a set piece of their own deep in Wisconsin territory 14 minutes later.

Rayfield’s team brought out something clearly worked on in training, as sophomore midfielders Hope Breslin and Maggie Hillman and senior defender Morgan Maroney stood in a three-person huddle over the ball. As the referee blew the play live, all three ran forward, with Breslin and Maroney heading at full speed to the right while Hillman slowed down and stayed central. Behind the three running players, Murray suddenly appeared in front of the Wisconsin defensive wall and played a perfectly timed pass, beating the Badger’s offsides trap and finding Breslin’s left foot.

Breslin appeared to mishit the shot, as the ball looped slowly in the air after connecting with her foot. However, Wisconsin junior goalkeeper Jordyn Bloomer was expecting a straighter, harder shot and stepped ever so slightly off the goal line, preparing for its velocity. The ball came down just under the crossbar and over her outstretched arm for an equalizing goal.

“For us to come back and get that goal in the second half just shows how much this team is fighting for something that they want,” Rayfield said.

From then on, the game was a defensive affair and neither team could create a clear enough chance to put away. Unlike the first matchup between the two sides, no one could find a winner in either period of extra time and the quarterfinal matchup went into penalties.

Although her save statistics were impressive, particularly in 2017, some critics felt Cunningham’s high amount of saves in previous years was more a product of her team’s defense inviting more pressure and shots than most others in the Big Ten.

Cunningham made sure to silence those doubters, as she saved each of Wisconsin’s three penalty kicks to guide Illinois to victory, as senior Patricia George, freshman Katelynn Buescher and sophomore Madi Wolfbauer all converted their kicks for Illinois.

“We told (Cunningham) before the PKs, ‘Make one (save)’ and that’s your job and our job is to finish them,” Rayfield said. “For us to make three in a row, and for her to make three saves, that’s just something special.”

The Illini advance to the semifinals with the 2-2 penalty kick triumph and will face top-seeded Penn State in Indianapolis on Friday at 10 a.m.

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