CHAMPAIGN — If you've never heard of Chuck Palahniuk, University of Illinois junior Steph Panozzo will be more than eager to clue you in on one of her favorite authors.
In true Oprah-like fashion, the Illini soccer team's resident book critic heartily recommends his 1999 novel "Invisible Monsters."
"You have no idea where the book's going to end up, so I like that a lot," the well-read goalkeeper said this week while enlightening a listener on Palahniuk's work, which includes the novel-turned-movie "Fight Club." "You never know where it's going to take you to."
Panozzo's enthusiasm for the written word is no plot-twisting mystery to her teammates. They've seen her voracious reading appetite in action and have affectionately dubbed the Canada native Book Nerd.
"She'll bring like five books, even if it's just schoolbooks, on our away trips," senior defender Jenna Carosio said, "and she finishes them on the trip down because she reads so fast.
"I always tell her I want her reading skills because it takes her like an hour to read 200 pages, and it takes me like an hour to read 10. We're all jealous."
Actually, Panozzo says, it's more like 60 to 70 pages an hour. Even so, that pace can come in mighty handy for a multitasking student-athlete.
"I didn't realize how much of an asset it was until I got to college," she said. "And I can do it with textbooks, too. It helps with finishing (assignments)."
When it comes to books, Panozzo is an equal-opportunity consumer. Contemporary fiction. Nonfiction. The literary classics. If it's between hard or soft covers, she's eager to flip through the pages.
"I do love to read; I'm a total book nerd," she said.
It's no coincidence, then, that this numbers-crunching accounting major also is minoring in English. Or that back home in Maple Ridge, British Columbia, Panozzo has "a few hundred" volumes sitting on her overstuffed bookshelves.
If this conjures up an image of a student-athlete who would be as much at home in a philosophical debate as she is on the soccer field, well, her current coach can attest to that.
"Very thoughtful; a deep thinker," Janet Rayfield said. "A very intellectual type of a person who certainly has a very different side than just an athlete."
Panozzo, the athlete, is highly adept at thinking on her feet, too. In a position that so often requires split-second decisions and reactions, this former Under-20 Canadian National Team member is the last line of defense for an Illini team that recently went on a shutout binge. No. 20 Illinois had not permitted a goal in five straight matches before Nebraska finally ended the streak Sunday in a 3-1 Illini victory.
"She's come up big in the last few games," said Carosio, who particularly recalls Panozzo's game-saving play in a 1-0 win against Wisconsin on Oct. 16. "It was toward the end of the game and they had a header shot on goal and she made a great diving save.
"She's come up big in crunch time. We (defenders) try to limit it to one great save a game, but she has made that save time in and time out."
Entering the season, there were questions about how an Illini defense in transition would perform. Panozzo, who had bided her time for two seasons as a backup, was about to become a full-time starter for the first time in her collegiate career. The three starting defenders in front of her weren't exactly brimming with college experience at their positions, either. Carosio, who before this season had primarily played in the midfield, entered the year with eight career starts. Sophomore Kassidy Brown was returning from a season-ending knee injury that limited her to 12 matches and 11 starts in 2010. The third starter, Stephanie Pouse, is a true freshman.
As might be expected, the largely untested back end of the Illini formation experienced some bumps. In one particularly rocky three-match stretch in early September, Illinois allowed nine goals.
"We did start out kind of slow," Carosio said.
But as Panozzo & Co. got more matches under their belts, the tide turned to the point that defense has become an extraordinary strength of this team. Since allowing two goals in each of its first two Big Ten matches, Illinois has permitted three in its last eight. In conference-only matches, only Wisconsin has a lower goals-against average than Illinois' 0.67.
"It was not what we were expecting this year at all," Panozzo said of the Illini's evolvement into a shutdown defense, "which makes it even more exciting. We were really young in the backline so ... it's been really nice that we've been doing so well defensively."
Certainly, an improving Panozzo has been a major factor. She's tied for second among Big Ten goalkeepers with six shutouts and ranks second in conference-only matches in goals-against average — 0.01 behind leader Michele Dalton of Wisconsin.
"Look at the nonconference statistics and the conference statistics, and you can see pretty evidently how much she's grown as a goalkeeper," Rayfield said.
But the UI coach doesn't need numbers to gauge Panozzo's progress. Rayfield can see it with her own eyes in her goalkeeper's decision-making, ability to organize the defenders in front of her, and growing confidence.
"Her knowledge base was large, her experience base was small," Rayfield said. "And now what we've done is taken that knowledge base and given it some experience, and out blossoms a pretty good goalkeeper."
Folks outside the program are taking notice, too. On Monday, Panozzo received her second consecutive Big Ten Defender of the Week award after making seven saves in a pair of wins. Then, in true goalkeeper fashion, she deflected the attention to her teammates.
"I would not be in this position without the great play of our entire team defense," Panozzo said. "We all the last few weeks have come together and taken great pride in defending, especially our back three."
Here's a point of pride for the entire team: By winning its last seven matches, Illinois has tied the school record for consecutive victories, originally set by the 2004 Illini. It's a record the current Illini (13-4-1) can have all to themselves by defeating visiting Michigan (9-7-2) in their regular season finale at 6 p.m. Saturday.
With Big Ten and NCAA tournaments to follow for Illinois, winning streaks are of paramount importance at this time of year. So are ultra-stingy goalkeepers, the kind currently occupying the net for Rayfield's team.
"It's taken a little bit of experience to get her to where she's now a goalkeeper that we're going to ride into the postseason," the UI coach said.
And who knows? Maybe this postseason will be an experience Panozzo will draw upon someday for a great work of fiction.
"Maybe. I've always wanted to be a penniless writer," she said, smiling at the thought. "I always wanted to be the starving artist."