No. 20 Illinois soccer opens Big Ten schedule in Minnesota

The Illinois soccer team will travel to Minnesota on Sunday holding a top 25 ranking for the first time this season.

Despite being predicted to finish seventh in the Big Ten in a preseason coaches poll, the Illini started the season strong, putting together a 7-1 record during their nonconference schedule and silencing their critics.

“We knew it from day one coming here that we could be a great team,” senior goalkeeper Alex Kapicka said last week. “Those (preseason) rankings didn’t mean anything to us. It was about us proving to ourselves as much as proving to them that we are a great team and hopefully can we continue to prove that.”

And prove it they have. Not only have the Illini been winning, they have been doing it in impressive fashion. Through the first eight games, they have outscored opponents 17-3, outshot them 164-70, compiled six shutouts and beaten two ranked and previously undefeated opponents. Their only loss came in double overtime at the hands of Connecticut.

As a result, Illinois has finally made an appearance in the NSCAA rankings five weeks into the season, coming in at No. 20. The Illini are also ranked first in the Great Lakes Region. Senior co-captain Danielle Kot said the team’s combination of a potent attack and a strong defense has been a key to its success thus far.

The defense is led by trio of seniors in Kapicka, Kot and Krystin Miller, who received Big Ten Co-Defender of the Week honors last week. They will be going for their fifth straight shutout on Sunday against Minnesota.

The Illini offense is clicking on all cylinders despite losing senior forward and scoring threat Jordan Hilbrands to injury two weeks ago. Freshman Vanessa DiBernardo has five goals and 11 points on the season to lead a balanced attack that saw four different players score all four goals last weekend.

Illinois head coach Janet Rayfield understands that her team’s ranking will help bring out the best in its opposition.

“If there is a target on our back, it’s one we’ve wanted,” Rayfield said. “You have to embrace that.”

The Illini’s first game as a ranked team this season will also be their first game in conference play, as they open the Big Ten schedule at Minnesota. The Golden Gophers also jumped into the Top 25 this week, coming in just ahead of Illinois at No. 18. They boast one of the highest scoring offenses in the nation and will come into the game leading the Big Ten in goals scored. A win against Minnesota would help validate Illinois’ spot in the top 20.

More important than rankings, though, the Illini know it is key to get off to a good start in conference play.

“Every game matters here,” Kot said. “A Big Ten Championship is at hand. Every game is going to be one of the most important games of our career.”