Soccer squad hosts in-state rival to open up 2009-10 Illinois athletic season

No. 17 Illinois will not be at full strength when it opens the 2009 soccer season at home against Illinois State on Friday. But head coach Janet Rayfield believes the adversity will benefit the Illini later on as they take on one of the toughest schedules in recent memory.

Missing from last Friday’s exhibition game against Cincinnati were injured seniors Chichi Nweke, Courtney Bell and Jackie Santacaterina.

While Santacaterina won’t play Friday, Rayfield expects Nweke and Bell to see action. And though the two will see reduced playing time against an in-state rival, Rayfield sees the positive side.

With some of Illinois’ key attackers out early, she said freshmen will get a chance to improve and learn the offense before the Illini get to the brutal part of their schedule, when the seniors will likely be back to form.

“I think we’re slowly getting them back,” Rayfield said. “Will they all be 100 percent at this point in time in the season? No, but I think that’s actually probably going to be a good situation for us.

“We’re going to get better and better as the year goes on. Underclassmen are going to mature and get better, and our upperclassmen and some of our seniors are going to get healthier and healthier.”

The past week of practice saw Illinois narrowing its focus down to specifics, with special attention given to the strategic shape on the field, Rayfield said.

Counterattacking and goal-scoring will be a priority for the Illini, who have traditionally fielded a strong defense.

Though a banged-up knee may limit her playing time, Nweke is optimistic about Illinois’ offensive capabilities on Friday.

“I think we have a lot of different threats,” the forward said.

“We have a lot of players that can threaten, but we have players that can hold the ball, too. So if we work together, I think all of us can work to make opportunities not only for ourselves, but for each other.”

Goalkeeper Alexandra Kapicka is Illinois’ eyes on the field, and she already sees improvements in how the defense and offense are coming together. Kapicka is excited to see how it plays out against a rival like Illinois State.

“It’s fun to play in-state schools during the year and see friendly faces … and play against people that we used to play against in club,” Kapicka said.

Rayfield said a buzz has formed around the game, and not just because it is Illinois soccer’s season opener.

Friday’s match marks the earliest the Illini have ever opened the season, and the match will mark the first official competition for any Illinois athletic team this year. The game comes just a day after the residence halls opened up for students.

“I was on campus (Thursday) watching people move in, and there’s just such a buzz of excitement,” Rayfield said. “We really hope to carry that buzz of excitement onto the field Friday night.

“I know it’s a freshman class that’s probably had as much soccer in their life as they have any other sport, and it’s only been the last few years that we can say that. And hopefully this freshman class will really come out and support us because it is really their first chance to show their Illinois pride, and we’re happy to have that honor.”