BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — She doesn’t keep last year’s Big Ten tournament trophy on the team bus. Or make her starting midfielders rub it for good luck before taking the field at Armstrong Stadium.
But make no mistake, Janet Rayfield has reminded her Illini of their status a time or two at this week’s soccer tournament at Indiana.
“I’ve told them, ‘Hey, we are the defending champions,’ and that should be a source of pride,” the Illinois coach said. “It’s an honor to defend it.”
So far, so good.
The fifth-seeded Illini are a win from becoming the second repeat champion in the tournament’s 17-year history after toppling No. 1 seed Penn State 1-0 in Friday’s semifinals. Sunday’s championship match against No. 2 seed Ohio State is at 11 a.m. (BTN, WDWS 1400-AM).
“I expect a hard-fought game,” UI senior forward Niki Read said. “We still have some business to take care of.”
A week ago, Illinois was on the NCAA tournament bubble. Now, the Illini are certain to be included when pairings are announced Monday.
“We just beat the (No. 3) team in the country,” Read said. “I’m not worried any more.”
Neither is Rayfield, who at first was hesitant to organize a team gathering for the pairings show. Then the Illini went on another Big Ten tournament run.
“I feel comfortable about it,” she said.
The Illini will go to the NCAAs for a third consecutive season either as an at-large qualifier or Big Ten champion.
“The ultimate goal is to win an NCAA championship,” Rayfield said. “Every tournament win, we use as a steppingstone.”
Friday’s match was decided by freshman Nicole Breece’s first-half goal and a stifling defense highlighted by keeper Steph Panozzo’s seven saves. It marked the first time this season the Nittany Lions had been shut out.
In the teams’ previous meeting, Penn State won 4-0 in Champaign.
“We got rattled then,” Rayfield said. “We don’t get rattled anymore.”
The Illini, who have won four in a row since a mid-October funk left them 6-7-3, beat Ohio State 1-0 in September. It will be the Illini’s fifth trip to the tournament title match.
“We know we have a talented team,” Read said. “But what makes us go is our character. We are good soccer players and good humans, too.”