Wheatley’s off-field adjustments helping her in goal

There was a void created in Illinois Soccer and Track Stadium at the end of last season.

With the graduation of goalkeeper Steph Panozzo, the Illini were missing a solid foundation for their season. Panozzo’s influence during her time couldn’t be understated, as the Illini qualified for two Big Ten Tournament finals with her in goal. Panozzo left the school tied with current assistant coach Leisha Alcia for most single-season saves in school history with 111 in her last year.

“Steph was always a great role model,” senior Lauren Parkin said “I never minded playing behind her because she was just such a great leader.”

Illinois soccer started out its 2013 preseason with no knowledge of who its starting goalkeeper would be. Parkin, Lizzi Sanscrainte and Claire Wheatley were the choices in front of head coach Janet Rayfield. Although the trio’s experiences differed, Rayfield judged her candidates by their consistency to give an equal chance at getting the job. The discussion was tight up until the season opener in which Panozzo’s backups Parkin and Sanscrainte lost out to the freshman Wheatley.

The competition in preseason was a precursor to the difficult times Wheatley would face early in her collegiate career. In the first weekend of the Illini’s regular season, Wheatley conceded eight goals. In the first five games, she had an average of 2.5 goals allowed per game.

“I think it’s about getting used to the college game,” Wheatley said. “I grew a lot in my self-confidence and confidence in my team.”

In the games since, she has earned her first shutout of the season and has a goal allowed ratio of just one per game. The former Plano West Senior High School standout has cemented her spot in the team by leading the Big Ten with 42 saves.

Wheatley has steadily improved her stats but her newfound form is obvious on the field. She has more control of the penalty area, and she is more vocal. She has become less fearful about coming out for the ball and starting attacks from the back. Wheatley has become the centerpiece for an improving defense.

“With each problem she solves, she continues to grow in her confidence in what she’s saying and how she’s saying it,” Rayfield said. “Her presence is getting bigger and her decision making getting better and that is certainly helping us.”

Wheatley said she had to adjust to the college game and pace as well as campus life. She had juggled sports and academia all her life, but being in a college in the Midwest added a lot more to the basic plot. She had to prioritize more in her life outside the sport to settle down on the field.

Currently Wheatley is the in-form goalkeeper but she is not just settling for dominance right now. She continues to motivate herself to get better, but her running mate Parkin takes a hand in that process. Wheatley and Parkin have forged a closer bond in their time together. Their friendship is based on mutual respect and competition as teammates vying for the same spot.

“Since it’s only two of us now, it’s easier to push her and encourage her,” Parkin said. “We push each other and I help her get her mind set right just like I need to get mine right.”

Lanre can be reached at [email protected]