Illinois soccer kicks off conference play at Ohio State

On Friday the Illinois soccer team (5-2-1) will take on Ohio State (6-1-1) in Columbus to begin its schedule of Big Ten games this season.

The Illini have emphasized improvement on both sides of the ball over the first few weeks of the young season. Head coach Janet Rayfield believes their matchup against a conference powerhouse will be an accurate test of how far they’ve come.

From the beginning of the season, Illinois has found its footing in front of the goal, scoring early and often. The team is tied for second in the nation with 28 goals scored.

The offense has been led by junior forward Jannelle Flaws and senior midfielder Vanessa DiBernardo who have 17 and 14 points respectively. The offense has gotten contributions from several players, however, as the team’s 28 goals are divided among 11 scorers.

“We’re a technical team who likes to keep possession of the ball,” DiBernardo said. “We work with each other and get numbers around the ball so I think the fact that we have players that are close to each other and are able to work off each other is helpful to make us successful.”

The offense has always seemed to be there and the team jelled almost instantly. The biggest surprise is the leaps the team has taken to shore up their defense. The team claimed its very first clean sheet of the season in its last game and is hopeful for more shutouts.

Illinois has conceded an average of 2.25 goals per game this season, which ranks at the bottom of the defensively oriented Big Ten conference. Rayfield points out that this statistic is skewed because of the 15 goals the Illini conceded in the first five games of the season. In the games since then, they have conceded just one goal per game.

“We’ve improved defensively,” Rayfield said. “We’ve come a long way from where we were at the beginning and through that we’ve stayed pretty consistent with our goal scoring and that’s been a great thing. If we can get both of those things consistent through the Big Ten season that will bode well for us.”

Last year, Illinois took a 1-0 win over the Buckeyes at Illinois Soccer Stadium during the regular season. The teams met later in the year in the conference finals and Ohio State took the Big Ten championship by a single goal, ending the game with a score of 2-1.

“Personally, there’s no such thing as revenge, but I want a good performance because of the last time we played them,” said Amy Feher, an Ohio native.

For the Illini to ensure a better chance for a win this weekend, they will probably need shut down the Buckeyes freshman forward Nichelle Prince.

Prince is a Canadian international who had been capped for her country’s senior team before she even saw a minute of college soccer.

This season she leads the team in both goals and assists with five and four, respectively.

“She’s their dangerous threat and we’re going to make sure that someone is always aware of where she is and someone is always close enough to be able to defend,” Rayfield said. “It won’t necessarily be the same person, it will be our team that takes that responsibility on.”

Lanre can be reached at [email protected] and @WriterLanre.