Illinois Soccer Preview - Year One A.D. (After DiBernardo)
On the Illini
Last year's Illinois soccer team was fun to watch, to say the least, as the Illini scored a school-record 54 goals. Of course, they also allowed a school-record 50 goals. It's a realistic expectation for both numbers to drop in 2014. Which one drops more will determine how Janet Rayfield's team will follow up a season that saw her program advance to the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 for the fourth time in history.
Illinois returns players who scored 35 of the previously mentioned 54 goals last season, and 23 of those are from one player, fifth-year senior Jannelle Flaws, who exploded offensively after missing two of the three previous seasons with knee injuries.
Defensively, there's hope that the Illini will be quite a bit stingier than they were a season ago. Goalkeeper Claire Wheatley returns after being very busy in her freshman season, as she made 101 saves as a rookie. She will also have a defense in front of her that got plenty of time to work together in the spring. Juniors Aliina Weykamp and Amy Feher were starters on the back line in 2013, and they'll likely be joined by sophomore Hope D'Addario, who saw time in the midfield last season before being sidelined by injury, and freshman Abby Elinsky, an early enrollee who is the state of Ohio's reigning Gatorade Player of the Year.
In the midfield, the Illini hope to be led by junior Taylore Peterson, who was a key part of starting the Illini attack last season in her defensive center midfield role. Peterson missed some practice time on Tuesday with a leg injury, and the Illini can't afford to be without her for significant time. Other midfield contributors could vary somewhat from game to game, but include juniors Nicole Breece and Regan Robishaw (who could also see time up top), sophomores Allison Stucky, Jenna Miller, Alia Abu-Douleh, Casey Conine and Summer Schafer (a transfer from Memphis), along with freshman Emily Osoba, whose older sister Allie scored five goals last year as a senior at Illinois.
Flaws should get some help at forward from freshman Kara Marbury, who will be a nice target in the box at 5'10". Several of the playmaking midfielders mentioned above will also likely get some time at forward.
Game by Game Predictions
8/22 vs. Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish welcome new coach Theresa Romagnolo, who takes over from long time leader Randy Waldrum. Last year's Notre Dame squad struggled to score against better defenses, but were very solid themselves on the defensive side and enter this season ranked #16 in the country. This should be a good early test for Illinois, but I see them coming up just short. Notre Dame 2 Illinois 1.
8/24 vs. Louisville. Last year's game in Louisville was the wildest I've ever covered, with Illinois winning 5-4 in overtime. I don't think we'll see as many goals scored this season on either side. Illinois 2 Louisville 0.
8/29 vs. Arizona State. This was also an exciting game last season, with Illinois falling short in a 3-2 overtime game in Tempe. I like the Illini to turn the tables at home. Illinois 2 Arizona State 1.
8/31 at Oakland. The Golden Grizzlies are a solid team from the Horizon League, but Illinois should have enough firepower to pick up a road win. Illinois 3 Oakland 1.
9/5 at College of Charleston. It's reunion weekend, as the Illini travel to Charleston to face former assistant Christian Michener's Charleston squad. He'll have his squad fired up, but that likely won't matter. Illinois 4 Charleston 0.
9/7 vs. UAB. The second game of the weekend in Charleston matches up the Illini with a squad projected for middle of the pack in Conference USA. Illinois should enter the league slate with some nice momentum. Illinois 2 UAB 0.
9/11 at Iowa. This is a very intriguing conference opener for the Illini. The Hawkeyes made the NCAA Tournament for the first time ever last season, only to have head coach Ron Rainey resign to take the head coaching job at Dartmouth. The Hawkeyes return a lot from last year's team, and new coach Dave Dilanni has a great record of success at the Division II level. Iowa 2 Illinois 1.
9/14 at Nebraska. The Huskers won both the Big Ten regular season and tournament titles last season, but lose quite a bit from that team. This one could have NCAA Tournament implications for both sides. Illinois 2 Nebraska 1.
9/18 vs. Indiana. Second-year coach Amy Berbary did an outstanding job in her first season at the helm, but has lot to replace in year two. The Illini still have memories of being knocked out of the Big Ten Tournament by IU last year in Champaign. Illinois 2 Indiana 0.
9/21 vs. Purdue. The visiting team has never won in this series. I see no reason for the trend to stop this year. Illinois 3 Purdue 1.
9/26 at Ohio State. The Illini opened the Big Ten season last year with a tie in Columbus. It's a matchup of talented scorers in this one, with Flaws for Illinois and Nichelle Prince of Ohio State. I'll predict a repeat of last year's result here. Illinois 1 Ohio State 1.
9/28 at Penn State. University Park has been a house of horrors for the Illini over the years, including a 4-1 loss to the Nittany Lions last season. Although the score should be closer, I don't think the result will change. Penn State 2 Illinois 1.
10/5 at Northwestern. In last year's 3-1 win in Evanson, Jannelle Flaw produced one of her two hat tricks of 2013. I suspect the Wildcats won't let that happen to them again, but Illinois should pick up a road win. Illinois 2 Northwestern 0.
10/12 vs. Minnesota. The 3-1 win over the Gophers last year in Minneapolis to close the regular season likely gave the Illini just enough of a resume to make the NCAA Tournament. The midfield battle here will be vital, as the Gophers have a great playmaker in Katie Thyken. Minnesota 2 Illinois 1.
10/17 at Rutgers. Illinois is logging the frequent flyer miles this year with three separate trips to the east coast. This one could go either way, depending on how the transition to the Big Ten has gone so far for the Scarlet Knights. I'm betting they have some problems. Illinois 2 Rutgers 1.
10/19 at Maryland. Meanwhile, many expect the Terps to fare better in the Big Ten than they did in the mighty ACC. They might, but they also lost quite a bit from last year's 10-10 team that missed the NCAA Tournament. Illinois 1 Maryland 1.
10/24 vs. Michigan State. The Illini close out the regular season with three straight games at home. They'll likely need results in at least two of those three to ensure a fifth straight trip to the NCAA Tournament. Illlinois 2 Michigan State 0.
10/26 vs. Michigan. After losing a standout senior class that led them to the Elite 8 last season, the Wolverines will likely drop back in 2014, but that doesn't mean they'll be easy to beat. Illinois 1 Michigan 0.
10/31 vs. Wisconsin. Illinois was able to knock off the Badgers 3-2 last season in Champaign. Led by Rose Lavelle in the midfield, Wisconsin should be near the top of the standings in 2014. Wisconsin 2 Illinois 1.
Overall Record: 12-5-2
Big Ten Record: 7-4-2
Big Ten Predictions
Most people (including me) were caught off guard by Nebraska's move to the top of the standings last season, ending Penn State's 15-year reign as regular season champions. However, Erica Walsh's team has reloaded in 2014, while Nebraska loses some key contributors. Here's how I see the league finishing in 2014.
1. Penn State. The Nittany Lions lose a lot of offensive firepower from last year, but the defense should be among the stoutest in the league. And with the talent that Walsh brings to Penn State each year, they'll find enough goals.
2. Wisconsin. Led by Rose Lavelle, look for the Badgers to respond well after a disappointing 2013 left them watching the NCAA Tournament at home.
3. Minnesota. Minnesota has a great goalkeeper with Tarah Hobbs and a great midfielder with Katie Thyken. Those are two nice ingredients for a return to the NCAA Tournament in 2014.
4. Iowa. As we saw with Amy Berbary at Indiana last year, if a new coach inherits good talent, the results can be there as well. The Hawkeyes return a lot from last year's NCAA Tournament team for new coach Dave Delanni.
5. Illinois. Expect an improved defense from Janet Rayfield's squad in 2014, if not another 54 goal outburst offensively. Jannelle Flaws may not get 23 goals again in 2014, but should easily reach double figures.
6. Maryland. The better of the two conference newcomers will be fighting for an NCAA Tournament bid in their inaugural campaign.
7. Ohio State. Although they made the NCAA Tournament last year, the 2013 was a bit disappointment in Columbus. Expect another season that ends on either side of the NCAA bubble.
8. Michigan. With the loss of Nkem Ezurike up top and Holly Hein in the back, it will be tough for the Wolverines to resemble the powerhouse team of 2013 that advance to the Elite 8.
9. Nebraska. Was 2013 a one-year wonder in Lincoln? The Cornhuskers have Jaycie Johnson and Mayme Conroy to provide goal scoring, but the defense could slip back to disappointing levels after key losses to graduation.
10. Michigan State. Ten starters return in East Lansing, which should allow Michigan State to contend for a Big Ten Tournament spot.
11. Rutgers. A new conference and a new head coach in Mike O'Neill might be a bit too much change for this program to handle in the same season.
12. Indiana. Amy Berbary did a masterful job in her first season at Indiana, but loses a lot of firepower from that squad, including the toughest name in the Big Ten, Lisa Nouanesengsy, who also was tough to defend.
13. Northwestern. The rebuilding process continues in Evanston for a team that finished just 1-11 in the league last season.
14. Purdue. The Boilermakers have fallen on hard times the last few seasons with little to indicate any immediate improvement.
Looking forward to watching the seaon opener in about an hour against Notre Dame. Our first broadcast this season on WDWS is this Sunday against Louisville at 1pm. Tim Ditman joins me for the broadcast.
Thanks for reading.