CHAMPAIGN – If you're heading out to the big soccer match tonight, Jillian Ellis suggests you leave the sweaters and jackets at home.
It could get a little toasty at the Illinois soccer field.
"The (homecoming) bonfire's right on the back of our field, probably 100 yards outside our fence, so you can feel the heat, so to speak," Ellis said. "It was really windy last year. We've got some great pictures of our players and in the background, there's this huge flame.
"Hopefully, we'll be hot, not just the bonfire."
In the program's two-year existence, Ellis' Illini haven't played many bigger matches than tonight's Big Ten showdown with Iowa.
The stakes are simple: Win it, and the Illini receive their first invite to the eight-team Big Ten tournament Nov. 6-8 at Penn State.
Lose it, and nothing's certain.
That's what Ellis' players tell her, anyway.
"Nowadays, they're all on the Internet," she said. "They get online and figure out all the math."
Game time's 7 p.m., the same time the bonfire's set to go off.
The Illini, 2-4 in the Big Ten, are in a three-team battle for the final two spots with Iowa, 1-5-1, and Ohio State, 2-5. A loss tonight wouldn't knock them out of it, but it could force them to pull off a few upsets to get in.
After tonight, their remaining Big Ten games are Sunday at defending conference champ Minnesota and next Friday at home against nationally ranked Indiana.
"We control our own destiny," Ellis said. "We win, we're in."
Make it there, and Ellis likes Illinois' chances of nabbing the automatic NCAA tournament berth that goes with winning the conference tourney as much as any team's. With three of the league's top 10 scorers (Lisa Baldwin, Sarah Aberle, Emily Brown) and the Big Ten's most productive offense, the Illini haven't been out of any league game.
They've scored 11 goals – and given up 11 goals.
Far cry from last season, when they were stomped 27-7 by league competition.
"To me, the tournament's open season," Ellis said. "I think, and I think the players realize, that on a given day, we can play and beat any of these teams. Every match we've played in the Big Ten has been competitive.
"We're shooting to make the tournament and then hopefully take some teams by surprise."