The Web Ate My Blog...
Really. That's what happened. Seriously. You don't believe me?
Last week, I spent a total of about four hours trying to put together my preseason Big Ten soccer picks. I ranked the conference teams one through twelve, and picked postseason award winners. Then I hit "publish," and got an error screen. Just like that, poof, it was all gone. I won't try to recreate what I wrote last week, as it's probably not worth the time. But, I will at least show you the picks I made. These were made before last week's games, and I won't change them, even though some results on the field might have swayed my thinking a bit. Here's my predicted order of finish for the Big Ten in 2012:
1. Penn State
3. Ohio State
8. Michigan State
Wisconsin and Minnesota both had good weeks in their opening non-conference games, and had I known those results, I might have moved them up a bit in my picks. Conversely, Ohio State really struggled in their opening weekend, dropping a pair of games on the road to unranked opponents, while Illinois could only manage a tie at Illinois State on Sunday. Oh, well. Preseason picks are never perfect anyway, at least mine aren't.
As for my postseason Big Ten award winners, I chose the following:
Forward of the Year: Maya Hayes - Penn State
Midfielder of the Year: Vanessa DiBernardo - Illinois
Defender of the Year: Tamara Strahota - Minnesota
Goalkeeper of the Year: Erin McNulty - Penn State
Coach of the Year: Ron Rainey - Iowa
Now that the picks are out of the way, let's look at the opening weekend for the Fighting Illini soccer team. They opened their season Friday night at home vs. Western Michigan, a squad that advanced to the MAC Tournament championship game a season ago before being eliminated by Toledo. The Broncos have a first-year, and first-time, head coach in Nate Norman, who comes to Kalamazoo from Miami, FL. He was an assistant there for just one season, and was an assistant at WMU prior to that.
After a couple of good scoring chances early, the Illini attack was largely stifled by the Broncos through the remainder of the first half. Early in the second half, Illinois started creating a few more chances. Freshman forward Nicole Breece was very active in her Illini debut, and drew a foul in the box to earn a penalty kick attempt. Junior defender Kassidy Brown stepped up and put it away off WMU keeper Michelle Watson's hands to give Illinois a 1-0 lead. The Broncos would step up their attack through a good portion of the second half, outshooting the Illini 12-4 in the period, and 20-9 overall for the night, but they could never find the equalizer. Illini goalkeeper Steph Panozzo came up big on a few occasions, making eight saves on the night to help Illinois keep a clean sheet.
I talked with both Nicole Breece and Steph Panozzo after the game. Panozzo talked about some of the differences between last year's three-back system and the four-back that the Illini used throughout the season opener.
Sunday, the Illini headed an hour west to take on their in-state rivals from Illinois State. A record crowd of 1085 was on hand for this one, which made for a great soccer atmosphere. Illinois' attack was much improved from Friday night, especially in the first half. The Illini outshot ISU 15-7 in the period, but struggled finishing, in part because of some diving saves from Redbird keeper Aryn Newsom. It was ISU who would get on the board first in the 22nd minute. Standout sophomore Rachel Tejada got behind the Illini defense in the box, where she was taken down from behind by freshman Tailor Smith. Tejada would convert the penalty herself for a 1-0 ISU advantage.
Illinois didn't have to wait long for the equalizer. Freshman Taylore Peterson sent a ball up the right flank for senior Niki Read, who then sent a beautiful cross into the box for freshman Nicole Breece. Breece took a moment to settle the ball, then placed a right-footed shot low past the diving Newsom to tie the score 1-1. It was Breece's first career goal for Illinois. That would be the end of the scoring on the afternoon. Neither squad had many dangerous opportunities in the second half, then traded a few good chances in extra time, but the game ended 1-1. Shots favored the Illini 26-17 for the day, with Newsom making ten saves for the Redbirds and Panozzo stopping three shots for Illinois.
After the game, acting head coach Jeff Freeman was encouraged by the improvement he saw from Friday night to Sunday, but a bit disappointed his squad didn't take better advantage of its scoring opportunities in the first half.
Illinois heads west this weekend for games against UC Santa Barbara and #5 UCLA. Friday night's contest in Santa Barbara starts at 9pm central time, followed by a 2pm central time kick at UCLA on Sunday.
There are a couple of injury notes for the Illini early in the season. Redshirt sophomore Janelle Flaws underwent a second ACL reconstruction this spring. Flaws missed the entire 2010 season after tearing her right ACL in the spring of her high school senior year before contributing off the bench last season. She said last week that she plans to sit out this season and petition the NCAA for a sixth year of eligibility. She contributed three goals and three assists in 2011.
Redshirt freshman Shannon Roche, a transfer from Miami, FL, said via Twitter that she is not on this weekend's trip to California. Roche did not play in the opening weekend and is wearing a splint on her right index finger. Acting head coach Jeff Freeman has said that he hopes to get Roche on the field in the near future, where she would compete for playing time on defense.