Wheatley continues to comes up big for Illinois soccer

With the postseason approaching for the Illinois soccer team, a team that once looked to break school records is now scavenging for every point it can get. One of the biggest reasons they’ve continued to be relevant in the Big Ten is thanks to sophomore goalkeeper Claire Wheatley.

“Our goalkeeper was huge (against Maryland) and made two penalty saves,” head coach Janet Rayfield said. “That point on the road was well-earned, hard-earned, hard fought for and, to be honest, probably could be the point that makes a difference with us potentially getting into postseason and the Big Ten Tournament.”

Wheatley made some key saves for the Illini, recording a total of 15 on the weekend and salvaging a point for a bruised-up Illinois team by saving a last-minute penalty shot in double overtime against Maryland on Sunday, making it her third penalty save of the season.

“It always comes down to a point somewhere along the way, and I told our team after the game on Sunday,” Rayfield said. “That point can be the one that we look back at the end of the season and say, ‘Everything we did to fight for this point today could be worth it.’”

The Illini sit at 9-6-1 (4-5-1 Big Ten) and eighth in the conference after failing to get a win in their last five games. Much of that has nothing to do with Wheatley, who has been on a stellar run despite her defense failing to give her much support.

Wheatley has made 49 saves for Illinois so far and has a save percentage of .766. Sunday’s game isn’t the first time Wheatley has saved Illinois soccer from a crucial loss. An 11-save performance against No. 21 Washington State in the first round of the NCAA tournament last year proved that Wheatley has been as vital to this team as striker Jannelle Flaws’ 17 goals.

“My old goalkeeper coach used to tell me, ‘You’ve got to pretend you’re putting it in the toilet and flush it,’” Wheatley said of how she handles a bad game. “Obviously it wasn’t a great experience, but you can’t dwell on that. The longer you dwell on a bad experience, the harder it is to move on.”

As solid and dependable as anyone on Rayfield’s squad, Illinois has to hope Wheatley continues to be on her A-game as the Illini look to make a late push into the postseason.

Eliseo can be reached at [email protected].