Soccer season rewind: Illini hit stride, smash expectations despite early tournament exit
April 19, 2021
It was a cold Thursday night April 8 when Illinois and Iowa met in the first regional round of the Big Ten Tournament. The Illini had beaten the Hawkeyes 3-0 earlier this year, and they had earned the No. 2 seed in the West division and were playing at home the same week of the Demirjian Park grand opening.
Everything was looking up for the Illini, but a golden goal in overtime by Hawkeye freshman Meike Ingles put their season to bed. A sudden end has the team looking ahead to summer training and the eventual fall season to not have that upset happen again.
“It’s hard not to look at that last game and say disappointing in terms of what we were hoping for,” said head coach Janet Rayfield. “We didn’t play our best on that last day, and that will sting for a while.”
Regardless of the Illini getting knocked out of the tournament quickly, their postseason run doesn’t reflect what we saw during the season.
After the regular season, Illinois finished tied for fifth with Indiana with a record of 6-4-1. The fifth-place finish was reminiscent of the 2018 season when it ended the season 6-5-0 and in sixth place in the Big Ten.
Usually, positions in the table are decided by points, but due to teams missing games due to COVID-19 issues, points per game was the marker. Prior to the season, the Big Ten preseason poll pegged the Illini in 10th place in the conference.
The fifth-place finish bettered their 11th place finish in 2019; exceeding the Big Ten’s preseasons expectations.
Illinois started off its season strong against Purdue and Iowa, winning 1-0 and 3-0, respectively. But Penn State and Wisconsin were up next, and they are some of the stronger teams in the Big Ten. Going against the previous Big Ten Tournament and Big Ten champions, it was going to be tough for Illinois, and they ended up losing 2-0 and 1-0, respectively.
The following three games were against Minnesota, Indiana and Nebraska. The game against the Golden Gophers was the lowest point of the season, as the Illini failed to convert any shots on goal. The game ended scoreless thanks to Sami Sample blocking nine shots.
Against Indiana, Illinois ended its scoring drought of three games after Eileen Murphy headed the ball into the goal after a cross from Aleah Treiterer.
It wasn’t until the game against Nebraska when the Illinois offense began to turn things around. Kendra Pasquale got her second goal and first assist of the season against the Cornhuskers in the Illini’s 3-1 win.
From that game on, Pasquale emerged as a frontrunner on the team, getting a goal in nearly every game.
The last game of the season was Senior Day against Ohio State. Emotions were high as the team was celebrating its seniors, and parents were in the stands for the first time since 2019.
While Pasquale scored the first goal of the game, it wasn’t enough, as Ohio State came knocking and scored two goals in less than two minutes to seal the 2-1 win.
The remaining three games were away at Michigan, Michigan State and Northwestern. Illinois got outmuscled by a powerful Michigan squad and lost 2-0.
Against the Spartans and Wildcats, the theme was game-winning goals. Both games were in a deadlock, and the Illini were the team to break it.
A goal in the 84th minute by Makena Silber got them the 2-1 win against Michigan State. Pasquale was speeding down the left flank and sent a cross into the box, Summer Garrison pulling her defender to the front post and Silber converted a wide-open, one-touch shot.
During the in-state rivalry against Northwestern, this time it was Silber who was running down the right flank and sent in a cross. Bouncing off a couple players in the penalty area, the ball fell to Garrison, who passed it right to Pasquale, sending the ball off her left boot into the back of the net with one minute and 13 seconds left in the game.
In the postseason, the Big Ten Tournament was different than in most years. Usually, the teams who finish in the top eight advance to the tournament. This year, however, all fourteen teams were invited and played in elimination games over two weeks.
The fourteen teams were split based on divisional alignment, and Illinois earned the No. 2 seed in the West division.
As one of the four hosts for the regional weekend, No. 2 Illinois went against 7-seed Iowa. Unfortunately for Illinois, its first tournament appearance since 2018 ended quickly, as it lost 2-1 in overtime. Kennedy Berschel’s goal was not enough for the Illini to advance in the tournament.
Rayfield usually lines up her team in a 3-5-2 formation, but this season we saw it change from a 4-5-1 and eventually a 4-4-2.
Why the change? It suited the team better, especially the defense, having four at the back rather than the typical three.
“The group we have right now is most effective in a four back if you look at, especially our outside backs,” Rayfield said. “If you put Ashley Cathro in a three back, you take away her attacking abilities she provides, but yet you want her defensive ability in the back line.
“Similar to Lauren Stibich or Summer Garrison, who played there (against Iowa). It really does allow our outside backs to kind of have the attacking mentality that they have right now. I think when you play in a three back, those three have to have certain characteristics and qualities, and I think this system fits the personnel we have.”
From there, Rayfield says you have to look at your attacking six and figure out what will complement the outside backs to get them into the attack. The ultimate decision was to use one forward up top, but the challenge with that is how do you get numbers forward in the attack. Later on, it finalized to two up front and four in the midfield to have more players going up and targets to look for.
Pasquale was one of the best players for the Illini this season. The All-Big Ten Third Team inclusion was the team’s top goal scorer, and the fast and crafty midfielder got herself out of several sticky situations. While we saw a lot of her going up the field, she also had the ability to come back and defend to block a shot or steal a ball off the opposing team.
Sample finished the season with four shutouts, first in the Big Ten with 56 saves, a College Soccer News Player of the Week award and a Big Ten Goalkeeper of the Week honor in her first season as the starting keeper. Following in the footsteps of Jaelyn Cunningham, Sample had big shoes to fill, and she did just that. She was a brick wall in goal at times and helped the Illini throughout the season.
Hope Breslin finished the season with no goals and only one assist. Arguably the best player for the Illini, but that clearly didn’t show up in the stats sheet. Regardless, the skillful midfielder dribbled past defenders and made her presence known in the midfield. Getting bodied in every single game, she was knocked down a lot, but none of it had any effect on her. Though no goals were credited to her name, she took her chances when she could but was unlucky.
Silber was a clutch player for the Illini. All three goals scored from her were game-winners that proved crucial, especially in the game against Michigan State. Also named to the All-Big Ten Third Team, Silber showed grit on the field. With the endless amount of fouls from the Spartans on Silber, it didn’t stop her. By the end of the game, she ended up getting the game-winning goal.
Eileen Murphy’s head. She got two goals off her head and leapt over her marker to get the goals. She nearly got a third against Northwestern and had more chances to get something off her head.
Joanna Verzosa-Dolezal. The only freshman to start and play every single minute is a huge accomplishment. As the other center back with Treiterer, she had a presence in the back line. Though the youngest on an already young defense, Verzosa-Dolezal has stepped up on the field as a vocal leader. Her work this season earned her a spot on the All-Big Ten Freshman Team.
When games were intense and close, the bench was there to cheer and motivate the players on the field. On Senior Day when Kendra Pasquale was playing her best, the bench was exuberant. Every time she touched the ball, made a tackle or had a good play, the bench was cheering her on. While that’s only one game, there are plenty of other games where the bench could be heard from far away. Main credits are to Elizabeth Cablk, Katie Le and Zoey Kollhoff, who kept the cheering, dancing and screaming going.