The Illini get to host, but their first-round opponent is no picnic.
What a week it's been for the Illinois soccer team. They won three overtime games (one via penalty kick shootout) in five days to claim their second ever Big Ten Tournament championship. The last time the Illini claimed the tourney title in 2003 was also the last time they hosted an NCAA Tournament game. That experience did not end well, as the Illini dropped a first-round matchup with Western Michigan. Illinois is hoping to win an NCAA game for the first time since their run to the round of 16 in 2008, but the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame will offer stiff opposition. Despite a pedestrian 10-7-3 record this season, the Irish are a battle-tested bunch that ran all the way through the tournament bracket a season ago to claim the program's third national championship.
The new format of the NCAA Tournament this season should work in the Illini's favor after the grind of the Big Ten tourney. With just one game this weekend, and a full six days of recovery after the overtime win vs. Penn State, fatigue should not be a factor this Sunday. In previous years, the Illini would have had to play a game on Friday, and those two extra days should help.
Scouting the Fighting Irish
The best way to describe this year's Notre Dame squad is "consistently inconsistent." They have very good results, most notably a 1-0 win at then #5 Marquette and a tie at nationally-ranked Santa Clara. They also played #1 Stanford to a 1-2 loss on that west coast trip, one of the closest games the Cardinal have had all season, and one where Notre Dame held a 1-0 lead heading into the final ten minutes. However, they also had some losses that you don't normally see from coach Randy Waldrum's side, including home losses to unranked Louisville and Georgetown. Close games have been Notre Dame's undoing this season, as the Irish are just 1-6 in matches decided by one goal. The Marquette win mentioned above is their only victory in one-goal decisions.
Individually, Notre Dame is led by All-American forward Melissa Henderson, who has tallied 18 goals this season and 70 in her outstanding college career. Henderson was runner-up for the Hermann Award last season, and entered the season as the favorite for that honor, though Notre Dame's team struggles may hamper her chances of winning this season. Three other Irish players have contributed six goals on the season: freshman forward Lauren Bohaboy, sophomore forward Adriana Leon and senior Jessica Schuveiller, who has played most of her career as a center back, but has moved into the midfield this season.
The Irish have had some ups and downs on defense this season. Part of that is due to some uncertainty with the keeper position, as freshman Sarah Voigt struggled in her early starts. Things seem to have settled down some after the team went to junior Maddie Fox between the pipes, as she has compiled a solid 0.82 GAA and a .812 save percentage. Overall, Notre Dame has allowed 23 goals in 20 games this season.
Jenna Carosio vs. Melissa Henderson. In reality, it's not just Carosio that will have to account for the All-American forward. But as the leader of an Illini defense that has gotten stronger throughout the season, Carosio's communication with keeper Steph Panozzo and her outside backs will be imperative against a player who can score and create goals in a variety of ways.
Vanessa DiBernardo vs. Jessica Schuveiller. DiBernardo is the engine of the Illinois offense. Whether she's creating chances for herself or her teammates, she simply has a knack for creating space and making plays. As a long-time center back, Schuveiller knows a thing or two about marking talented offensive players and has also emerged as a goal-scoring threat herself this season. Playing through some painful ankle injuries last weekend (and playing well) was a big step for DiBernardo.
Jackie Guerra vs. Courtney Barg. It's not a coincidence that all three Notre Dame players mentioned here are seniors and club teammates from Dallas who have played together for many years. Barg is the piece that has been in and out of the lineup because of injury, missing seven games this season. Like Guerra, she is a player who doesn't score a huge number of goals, but whose ball-winning and distribution are a key part of her team's offensive attack. Whoever wins this battle will go a long way toward deciding which team controls possession.
I went 5-2 in last week's Big Ten Tournament predictions, as the Illini made me look smart. That puts my season prediction record this season at 101-37-8. I'll start with the other two Big Ten teams in action this week in the NCAA first round. One is fairly easy for me to predict, but the other looks a bit more challenging. My winners are once again in bold.
Army at Penn State. The Black Knights' defense could make things a bit challenging for Maya Hayes and company, but it will be tough to keep the Nittany Lions off the scoreboard for 90 minutes.
Ohio State at Tennessee. This should be a very good game, and I was tempted to pick the Buckeyes. But as I looked at Tennessee's record this season, they only had two home losses to SEC champion South Carolina and nationally-ranked UCLA. I'll go with UT at home.
Notre Dame at Illinois. Another very tough game to call. The Fighting Irish certainly have more talent on their roster than the Illini, led by the three outstanding seniors mentioned above. But this is a team that by their own coach's admission that has yet to put together a complete 90 minute game. I'll go with the team that hasn't lost since late September, and that's the Illini.
On the Air
Because of other Illini broadcast obligations, we won't be able to carry this exciting matchup, which is a shame. But, we will have some live updates from Tim Ditman, who will be there to watch this one. Also listen for some player and coach interviews over the next couple of days. Thanks for reading.