Gritty Illinois soccer optimistic moving forward

The Illinois soccer team can be known as a “gritty team.”

It’s a description that’s been used time and time again by head coach Janet Rayfield, and a mantra that has been adopted by a stubborn Illinois team that has flirted with the NCAA rankings this season. Twelve games into the season, the Illini proved they’re not going away anytime soon.

Outshot 19-6 against No. 8 Penn State on Sunday, Illinois still had every opportunity to win the game. Goalkeeper Claire Wheatley did everything in her power to keep her team in the game, making a season-high eight saves. After Penn State’s Frannie Crouse opened the scoring in the 63rd minute, Illinois didn’t hesitate in answering back. Striker Jannelle Flaws went on to score 47 seconds later off an Amy Feher assist.

The game was tied, 1-1, and overtime looked certain. However, Penn State’s Salina Wilford struck in the 84th minute, a goal that trickled past the goal line despite Wheatley’s best efforts. 

But Illinois remained unfazed. Wheatley promptly chucked the ball out of the goal as the rest of the team jogged to set up for the restart. There was no sulking or pouting despite the fact that it was a hotly contested game that was lost in the final minutes. 

With what Illinois has done this season, nobody would write them off. Defender Hope D’Addario flung her ponytail back, looked at the six minutes left on the scoreboard and confidently strutted back to her position with a kind of never-say-die attitude. And why shouldn’t Illinois have such an attitude?

This is an Illinois team that scored three goals in a span of 10 minutes and 25 seconds against Purdue earlier this season to break a 0-0 deadlock. It’s the same Illinois team that has been roughed up by injuries to Kara Marbury and Aliina Weykamp and has still found a way to succeed with Alia Abu-Douleh and Megan Green as its fill-in players. 

It’s a team that has won overtime games because of its defenders, and one that recovered after losing 2-0 in its opening Big Ten loss to Iowa. The team beat last season’s Big Ten champion Nebraska with a 3-0 score.

It’s a defense that bounced back from a disappointing 3-1 opening loss to the now No. 11 Notre Dame and has gone on to record six shutouts. It’s a midfield that has largely run both sides of the field and recorded 11 assists on the season. And it’s an offense propelled by the ever adversity-fighting Jannelle Flaws. 

On this occasion on Sunday afternoon, though, Illinois came up short. The final whistle blew and 2-1 would be the final score. With the loss, Illinois dropped from No. 19 in the nation out of the rankings. It wasn’t a total loss though. For Rayfield, nothing was really lost.

“Our effort was there today, it was just our execution that was off,” she said after Sunday’s game. “I love the grit this team trains and plays with and today we were gritty. We can perform better and more together but we left it all on the field and I am proud of this team for that.”

Illinois looks forward now. After snapping a four-game winning streak and eight-game streak of limiting its opponents to single-digit shots, there’s some weight off its shoulders now. 

“I told this team I’m optimistic based on what I saw today,” Rayfield said after the early season loss to Notre Dame. “This team is going to get better.”

With its gritty displays so far this season as evidence, she’s got everyone in the locker room believing it too.

Eliseo can be reached at [email protected].