Illini soccer prepares for Wake Forest Invitational with help from team mascot

The Illinois soccer team will have an extra traveler this weekend.

He is a dinosaur on a stick named Jacque. Junior Megan Pawloski brings Jacque on long bus rides to entertain her teammates and keep them in high spirits.

This weekend, Jacque will be put to good use, as Illinois (3-1-1) travels east to face Wake Forest (4-1-1) and Virginia Tech (6-0-0) in the Wake Forest Invitational. This will be the first-ever meeting between Illinois and the two teams, but interim head coach Jeff Freeman’s prior experience should contribute to the team’s cause.

“The nice thing about my coaching history is that I spent seven years in the ACC,” Freeman said. “I have a pretty good idea of what we are going to see in both Virginia Tech and Wake Forest. Hopefully that helps in our preparation for these games this weekend.”

The Hokies have had two overtime wins this season, including a 3-2 victory against the newest member of the Big Ten — Nebraska.

Wake Forest recently defeated Hofstra 2-1 for its third consecutive victory. It will be important for Illinois to continue the energy it had from the UW-Milwaukee game and be the first ones on the scoreboard.

“I think you will notice that we have gotten points from several different girls on this team, which says a lot about our talent,” senior Niki Read said. “Energy coming out in the first five minutes is something that we work on. We look for those big five moments, which would be the first five minutes of each half and last five of each half. …I think if we can keep that going, it’s going to be really hard to stop us.”

With such a short turnaround from Monday’s victory against UW-Milwaukee, Illinois will need to keep focused. Substituting players in and out of the game is a part of what led the Illini to a multigoal victory against the Panthers.

Freeman said he plans to use all his players this weekend, as these will be two competitive matches.

“When you have to play Friday and Sunday against two great opponents, it certainly helps not only in the Friday game, but also more-so in the Sunday game with having fresh legs and being able to measure up against a team of Wake Forest’s quality,” Freeman said. “Those players coming in off the bench are really important to us in terms of our overall performance on the weekend.”

This season, every team has been unfamiliar competition for freshman Nicole Breece, but this weekend her teammates are in the same position. Never having a matchup against a team doesn’t change how the Illini prepare.

With only one day of practice on the field this week, Illinois will have a chance to prove themselves for the first time on the East Coast.

“You have to go in there thinking they are just as good as any other team you’re going to play,” Breece said. “We don’t know their strengths and weaknesses yet, we haven’t had our game plan played out yet, but you just have to go in there thinking they are the best and you’re going to do anything to win.”

_Gina can be reached at [email protected] and @muelle30._