Postseason unlikely for Illini soccer after weekend split

Illinois soccer head coach Janet Rayfield had a very specific set of goals this weekend: Beat Michigan State and Michigan and stay alive in the fight for a postseason tournament berth.

However, in an unlikely split of games, it appears all but certain the Illini will be sitting at home come tournament time for the first time since 2002.

Illinois (7-8-3, 2-5-2) came out firing in Friday’s opener, as five different goal-scorers found the back of the net in a 5-0 rout of the Spartans (10-4-4, 3-4-2). Sophomore midfielder Jenna Carosio started things off early for the Orange and Blue, heading in her first-career goal in the ninth minute to put the Illini up 1-0. From there the team continued its trend of prevailing in games in which it scores first, as the goal propelled the Illini to a 4-0 lead by the end of the half. With the win, the Illini improved to 6-0-1 on the season when drawing first blood.

“We talked about our forwards having to get in and shoot like they were expecting to score instead of hoping to score,” Rayfield said after Friday’s game. “In the first 20 minutes, we did that, and the result is we put two in the back of the net.”

“It was life and death, and we lived,” Carosio added. “The huge difference was attacking in the box. We just grabbed for every ball, and I think that made a huge difference and put pressure on (Michigan State).”

Junior Laura Knutson, who got the start at forward in the game, paced the Illini with three points in the match. The Crystal Lake, Ill., native scored her second goal of the season in the 20th minute and picked up an assist on a throw-in to freshman Niki Read less than four minutes later. The goal and overall play of Knutson drew the praise of Rayfield, who said Knutson’s energy jump-started the team’s offensive attack.

“That’s the kind of goal she’s going to give you,” Rayfield said. “She fought in the box for a ball … and ends up putting it in the back of the net. That’s the kind of mentality we needed on the field and it spread to everybody else.”

The Illini bench contributed as well, scoring three of the team’s five goals. Substitutes juniors Christina Sahly and Cory Steigerwald provided goals in the 43rd and 72nd minutes, respectively, in addition to Read’s.

The weekend’s second game was a different story, as the Illini fell 1-0 to Michigan despite attempting 21 shots against freshman goalkeeper Haley Kopmeyer. The total, which included 11 shots on goal, marked the highest number of shots the Illini have had in a match since their Sept. 6 showdown with UC Santa Barbara, in which they tallied 29.

The game was locked in a scoreless tie for the majority of the game, but the Wolverines (6-8-5, 1-3-5) squeaked past the Illini defense in the 74th minute on an Alex Jendrusch goal.

In a physical match that saw each team pick up 11 fouls, the Illini dominated nearly every statistical column but couldn’t convert on their offensive opportunities.

“Some games you hit (shots) and some games you don’t … We couldn’t quite find as many gaps,” sophomore Marissa Mykines said. “We had our opportunities, but we just didn’t put them away today so it’s just the way it goes sometimes, I guess.”

The loss proved to be a bitter send-off for the team’s four graduating seniors, as the Illini are likely out of the postseason tournament picture.

“Honestly, I don’t see (an at-large bid) happening,” Rayfield lamented. “Stranger things have happened, but I think we felt like going into these last three games we needed to win all three … I’m the honest person, and bottom line, I don’t think we have a chance (of making the NCAA Tournament), but we’re going to go play on Friday (at Northwestern) and play for pride.”