The Illini are looking for their first Big Ten Tournament title since 2003.
With teams starting tomorrow in the Big Ten Tournament, I wanted to be sure to get my postseason awards and Big Ten Tournament predictions out there. Let's start with my choices for the postseason awards.
Offensive Player of the Year: Maya Hayes - Penn State. As the conference season wore on, Hayes opened up some distance between herself and the other competitors for this award (Morgan Marlborough - Nebraska, Laura Heyboer - Michigan State, Vanessa DiBernardo - Illinois). Hayes led the Big Ten in both goals (12) and assists (6) in conference games, and totaled a whopping 25 goals for the season. Add in Penn State's team performance, and this choice was easy.
Defensive Player of the Year: Jill Flietstra - Michigan State. I was all set to go another direction, but made a change after the last regular season game. Flietstra finished fourth in GAA during league games, and second in save percentage, and she single-handedly kept MSU in several games during league play. But I think she showed her value when she missed some time during the non-conference season. The Spartans had to go to overtime to win a 4-3 decision over Detroit when Flietstra was out with injury. They allowed more than one goal only twice during the Big Ten season, one of those to high-powered Penn State.
Coach of the Year: Ron Rainey - Iowa. With apologies to Penn State's Erica Walsh, who was my second choice, Iowa was picked to finish dead last in the Big Ten by the league's coaches in the preseason. They finished tied for fifth. Because of an anemic non-conference schedule, the Hawkeyes likely have to win the Big Tournament to gain an NCAA bid, but considering where the Hawkeyes have been in recent seasons, the fact that they're still alive is a very nice achievement.
Freshman of the Year: Taylor Uhl - Minnesota. Uhl had some good competition for this honor from Chloe Lacasse - Iowa and Cara Walls - Wisconsin, but a hat trick in her final conference game against Nebraska sealed the deal. Uhl finished the conference season tied for third in goals (8) and tied for fourth in points (19), and her hat trick against the Cornhuskers helped clinch a Big Ten Tournament bid for the Gophers.
First Team All-Big Ten
GK: Jill Flietstra - Michigan State.
D: Jenna Carosio - Illinois. Part of a unit that compiled five straight shutouts in league play.
D: Emma Thompson - Penn State. Leader of the defensive unit that allowed the fewest goals (7) in conference play.
D: Meghan Flannery - Wisconsin. Defense has been the Badgers calling card, and Flannery's play in the back is a big reason why.
M: Vanessa DiBernardo - Illinois. The engine of an Illinois attack that totaled 48 goals during the regular season.
M: Lauren Montenegro - Purdue. The best ball-winner I saw in person all season.
M: Christine Nairn - Penn State. Her scoring totals were down this season, but the attention she garnered from opposing defenses opened things up for Hayes and company.
M: Alev Kelter - Wisconsin. The Badgers weren't the same without her early in the non-conference season, as she was playing hockey for the US U-20 national team. That physicality carries over to the soccer field.
F: Maya Hayes - Penn State.
F: Morgan Marlborough - Nebraska. Most years, her offensive numbers (11 goals, 3 assists in league play) are good enough for Offensive Player of the Year honors.
F: Laura Heyboer - Michigan State. She's one of the players you have to account for on the field every second, or else you'll be taking the ball out of the back of the net.
UPDATE: Here are the official awards, released this afternoon by the Big Ten Conference. They changed the format a bit from past years, and the Illini did very well. I won't list everything, as you can click through for the rest, but here are the big ones:
Forward of the Year: Maya Hayes - Penn State
Defender of the Year: Jenna Carosio - Illinois
Midfielder of the Year: Vanessa DiBernardo - Illinois
Goalkeeper of the Year: Michelle Dalton - Wisconsin
Freshman of the Year: Taylor Uhl - Minnesota
Coach of the Year: Janet Rayfield - Illinois
In addition, senior Marissa Mykines earned second team All-Big Ten honors, plus Stephanie Pouse and Janelle Flaws were both named to the All-Big Ten Freshman Team.
Big Ten Tournament Predictions
#3 Michigan State vs. #6 Iowa. The Hawkeyes won in Iowa City during the regular season, but MSU just played on Northwestern's artificial surface, which takes a bit of time to get used to.
#2 Illinois vs. #7 Ohio State. See above. The Illini also recently played in Evanston, and stayed for an extra practice on the turf before heading to Nebraska.
#1 Penn State vs. #8 Northwestern. The Nittany Lions won 4-0 in State College earlier this season. It should be closer on the Wildcats' home turf, but look for Northwestern's season to end here.
#4 Wisconsin vs. #5 Minnesota. This should be the best matchup in the first round. These two teams are big rivals that played to a 2-2 tie in Madison earlier this season. Wouldn't be at all surprised to see it come down to a shootout.
#2 Illinois vs. #3 Michigan State. The Illini still haven't allowed a goal against MSU since 2002. These streaks eventually have to end, but it's hard to predict when.
#1 Penn State vs. #4 Wisconsin. Paula Wilkins seems to have Penn State's number as well, as the Badgers handed the Nittany Lions their only conference loss this season, and also knocked them off last season in State College.
#2 Illinois vs. #4 Wisconsin. This should be a very good final. Illinois picked up a 1-0 victory in Champaign earlier this season, and also shut out the Badgers in Madison last year. I'll predict more of the same, as the Illini will try to pick up their second ever Big Ten Tournament title.
We just confirmed this morning that WDWS will carry the Big Ten Tournament final if Illinois advances that far. It would also be streamed at wdws.com. I broadcast a game from Lakeside Field a few years ago and really enjoyed the facility and the wonderful view of Lake Michigan from the pressbox. Hope I get to experience it again. Thanks for reading.