Seniors prepare for last regular season game as Illini

This weekend’s game is not goodbye for the seniors of the Illinois soccer team, but the end of a chapter in their college career.

The Illini (13-4-1, 7-2-1 Big Ten) will finish the regular season Saturday, hosting senior night at the Illinois Soccer and Track Stadium. Illinois will face Michigan (9-7-2, 4-5-1), which will look to earn a spot in the Big Ten Tournament with a win. The Wolverines are among six teams battling for three open spots.

Illinois, which is guaranteed a spot in the tournament, increased its offensive efficiency in wins against Northwestern and Nebraska last weekend. The Orange and Blue scored three goals on 10 shots against Northwestern and scored an additional three goals on 17 shots against Nebraska.

“I think our finishing is getting better,” senior Marissa Mykines said. “I think we have been creating the opportunities all along, it’s just a matter of getting our confidence and making sure we find the back of the net.”

While the offense has been on the rise, the defense’s five-game shutout streak was interrupted when Nebraska’s Morgan Marlborough tallied her 20th goal of the season in the second half Sunday. Illinois head coach Janet Rayfield said the team’s confidence remains high.

“I think we are always looking for a clean sheet,” Rayfield said. “That is the defensive pride that this team has built over the season. I don’t know that they started the season with that sort of intent, because they were just trying to get better defensively, but now I think they consider themselves a very solid defensive team. And if you do, then a shutout is the only thing that you would really challenge yourself with.”

Illinois’ defense will be faced with the task of containing Michigan’s two main offensive leaders, Nkem Ezurike and Clare Stachel. Pairs of forwards are familiar territory for the Illini, who have had success against duos in the Big Ten — one being Michigan State’s combination of Laura Heyboer and Olivia Stander, who have accounted for 29 of the Spartan’s 36 goals this season — due to their strong team defense.

“It is another dynamic duo up front,” Rayfield said. “They have got two great goal-scorers, very attacking-minded threats up front. Nkem Ezurike and Clare Stachel are both quality goal-scorers, so our defense is going to have to be good. Again, we want to defend as a complete team because I think if we can defend in our midfield it limits the number of opportunities, the number of times that those two get served a ball.”

With emotions running high, senior Julie Ewing said she will be more inspired to play to win this weekend in her last regular season game for the Illini.

“I think it is crazy that time has just flown by so fast,” Ewing said. “We are all really excited, and I think it will put a little bit extra out there to get a win. It is always big to try and send your seniors out with a win at the end of the season. It has been a cool time here, especially with the five people in our class, so it will be a special night.”

Rayfield said each senior plays an important role for the team’s success, and it won’t stop after this last regular-season game. Before Saturday’s game, the seniors will be recognized with their parents on the field, but with the Big Ten tournament and possibly the NCAA tournament left to play, their college careers aren’t over yet.

“I think the good thing is that as we head into the Big Ten Tournament, we know that there is more to play,” Rayfield said. “It is a night to honor them, but by no means are we going to take this as a chance to say goodbye, because they have a lot of soccer yet to be played.”