Conine grows and matures with her team

In the 76th minute of the Illinois soccer team’s match against Minnesota Thursday, freshman defender Casey Conine made the play of her season.

Sophomore midfielder Taylore Peterson dribbled down the right side of the box. She spotted her 5-foot-11 teammate running towards the left pole and, as she was falling down, launched a cross. 

Conine reacted, swinging her leg and connecting with the ball on her right thigh. The ball deflected into the goal uncontested. She turned around, only to have sophomore midfielder Nicole Breece and junior forward Jannelle Flaws mob her. They knew exactly what that goal meant: a chance to advance to the Big Ten Tournament.

While Conine is not a natural offensive player, her size and ability in the air are what make her a threat in the box at either end of the pitch. She has scored three goals this season, a relatively high mark for a central defender.

“It’s the confidence to really go at them,” Conine said. “I think it gives anyone the freedom to go in and be the hero. (Senior midfielder and defender) Kassidy (Brown) has done it before and a lot of people have taken the reigns and tried to go and do it.”

But Conine’s unique versatility goes along with her unique story.

The Leslie, Mich., native was homeschooled for her high school years. She played on high-achieving club teams and was invited to participate in competitive development programs. As she grew both in height and ability, coaches realized her potential on the backline. Illinois head coach Janet Rayfield was one of those coaches.

Conine’s ability made an impression on Rayfield, but Rayfield also made one on her prized recruit. When Conine visited Illinois she was struck by Rayfield’s intelligence and composure.

“I felt really comfortable playing under her,” Conine said. “That she would know how to handle situations that I didn’t, and it’s actually been like a blessing to have her as a coach.”

Conine knew she made the right decision to attend Illinois. Her journey would continue to be unique as she enrolled early and began college in the spring semester of 2013. Both she and Rayfield knew that extra time to get used to college would prove valuable considering the unusual transition ahead of Conine.

“It was interesting,” Conine said. “It was really a big shock at first, but there’s a fantastic support system.”

Like many student-athletes, the challenge of balancing the sport and school proved the most difficult for her.

“It’s like working two full-time jobs,” she said.

It may have been difficult for Conine, but when the 2013 season started, she was ready to hit the ground running. She was in the starting lineup for the season-opener against Notre Dame. Conine scored the only Illinois goal in a 4-1 loss. Like the tall defender Conine is, she scored it off a header in the box.

As the season progressed, Conine developed into a highly trusted defender. She was charged several times with the task of marking and going head-to-head with the opponent’s best offensive weapon. That responsibility has allowed for more self-confidence as the season has progressed.

“I think mostly she’s gotten more comfortable and is trusting herself more,” Rayfield said. “Not second-guessing a decision, not (thinking), ‘Maybe I should step with this one. Maybe I wouldn’t.’ And just going with her gut instinct.”

That instinct has helped her develop into a real presence on the backline. It is not just her size that opposing offenses have to worry about. While she is dangerous in the air, she is not afraid to get down and go right at the opponent with the ball. She has also proved her solid recovery speed numerous times as she frequently finds herself as the sole defender between the ball and goalkeeper Claire Wheatley. As a unit, the Illini defense has improved throughout the season, thanks in part to Conine’s development, which is still only a year in the making.

“I think she’s going to continue to grow in her ability to see things on the field,” Wheatley said. “And to read things early and get in there quickly and continue to keep people in front of her.”

With Illinois preparing for the Big Ten Tournament, Conine said she is eager to continue this ride that has really just begun.

“I feel extremely blessed,” she said. “I’m excited. I’m ready to bring it, but I definitely feel blessed.”

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