Illinois soccer heads to first Big Ten tournament since 2015


The Daily Illini File Photo

Illinois midfielder Hope Breslin (10), forward Kelly Maday (15), and defender Ashley Cathro (33) celebrate with forward Caroline Ratz (8) after a goal during the game against Northern Illinois at the Illinois Soccer Stadium on Sunday, Aug. 26, 2018. The Illini won 8-0.

By Evan Viscioni , Contributing Writer

For the first time in two years, the Illinois soccer team is headed to the Big Ten tournament. The Illini’s regular season performances earned them the fifth seed, and they will travel to Madison to take on Wisconsin in the quarterfinal round of the tournament.

Illinois finished the regular season with its first winning record in two years at 11-7 overall (6-5 Big Ten). Some notable wins included a pair of 2-1 victories over then-No. 3 ranked Duke, and No. 14 Oklahoma State.

Coming into the season, Illinois was looking to improve on an 11th place finish in the 2017 Big Ten standings. The team wasn’t looked at as a threat heading into 2018, but that did not affect how hard the players trained.

“We never paid any attention to stuff like that,” junior goalkeeper Jaelyn Cunningham said. “We just came in and worked every single day to be in the position we are now and hope to take full advantage.”

The team will certainly expect Cunningham to perform as she has all season come Sunday. She has recorded a total of 63 saves on the season, including six shutout performances, along with a Big Ten goalkeeper of the week honor when she snagged a total of 14 saves in a two-game span to help guide Illinois to consecutive wins over Purdue and Indiana earlier this season.

Outside of the net, the Illini have been a threat to put shots in the back of the net all season. The team has outscored their opponents 32 goals to just 18 conceded, with 12 different players scoring this season.

“We have really have been preaching that whatever, it takes mentality,” said head coach Janet Rayfield. “Every individual person doing their job and doing whatever it takes to head the team to be successful. From our players to the bench to the staff, we all have a role.”

Senior Katie Murray has embodied that mentality in her last season as an Illini. She has recorded a team-high seven goals, with two being game-winners, this season. As the team straps in and prepares for the battle against Wisconsin, Murray knows exactly what is at stake.

“Our main focus heading in is to just do your job and play hard,” Murray said. “ Every game from here on out could be the last, so we have to try and execute.”

When the Illini last played the Badgers in September, it was a defensive battle in Madison, as both teams struggled to maintain the position of the ball. The two teams fought all the way into a second overtime, until the Wisconsin attack was finally able to score in the 103rd minute of the game to give the Badgers a 1-0 win.

“We are going to stop the overtime losses,” Cunningham said. “We have to come out with that winning mentality and really focus.”

The tilt against the Badgers will be on Sunday, October 28, at noon.