Freshman Meegan Johnston makes difference in 2nd game

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The Illinois soccer team’s freshman class is playing a large role at the start of the 2013 season. Midfielder Meegan Johnston has made the biggest contribution, netting the game-winning goal just minutes into overtime to beat Louisville 5-4 on Sunday.

The game was an offensive showcase for both teams that ended when senior midfielder Vanessa DiBernardo drew defenders, which gave Johnston space. DiBernardo then found her teammate a mere 25 yards away from the goal. Johnston broke away and slammed it home for the lllini’s first win of the season.

“We had really good possession prior to the goal,” Johnston said. “We were just knocking it around. It was really simple and easy, and then the seam just opened up for the shot and I took my chance.”

With Illinois’ defense allowing eight goals in two games, the offense has had to carry the team. Young players like Johnston have had to learn quickly and were expected to contribute right away.

“A lot of us freshmen, we were thrown into the preseason and it was kind of a surprise,” Johnston said. “But I think that in the little amount of time that we’ve been here so far, we’ve all improved so much.”

To help that process, head coach Janet Rayfield wanted the freshmen to find roles that play to their strengths. Against Louisville, Johnston took on a more forward position in hopes that the change would allow her to show off her finishing skills.

“I think the thing with someone like Meegan is she found herself in a comfortable place doing what she does really well,” Rayfield said. “And I think that’s what’s been the hard part for all of our freshmen, is to realize in this game that’s flying around, there’s going to be moments where (it’s time for them to do) what they do well.”

Though tactical adjustments have helped Johnston contribute big plays almost immediately, she said teammates, like senior defender and team captain Kristen Gierman, have also helped her succeed at the collegiate level. Veterans and coaches are well-aware of Johnston’s physical gifts. They just want to put her in the best position to use them, like against Louisville.

“I think Meegan has a really quick step,” Gierman said. “So she can make a move and get around players, and I think that she does a good job being elusive by little tricks on the ball that not everyone has up their sleeve.”

Johnston totaled a goal and an assist with four shots over the opening weekend against Notre Dame and Louisville. It is not unprecedented for young offensive players to step up for the Illini. Sophomore forward Nicole Breece tallied four goals and three assists last season in her freshman campaign. Johnston said playing in a program that uses younger players gives her confidence.

“I think that just shows that anybody out here, any of us freshmen, have the chance to impact the game in any way possible.”

If the first two games are any indication, Johnston will be given opportunities to continue her fast start. The Illinois offense is clicking, and Rayfield has no problem putting in young players right away, despite the adjustment period that comes with being a freshman college athlete. With her attacking instincts and physical skills, Johnston is poised for a solid freshman campaign.

“She obviously has the ability to compete at this level, and she just is exciting,” Gierman said. “And I think she works hard and is going to be a big piece for us.”

Alex can be reached at [email protected] and @AlexOrtiz2334.