Illini focus on job at hand
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – There's a fancy banquet to attend. And decisions to be made on what to wear.
There are souvenir T-shirts for all the participants. Wouldn't want to forget to pick one up.
There will be family members in the stands. Might even be able to spot them from down on the field.
Oh, and there's this soccer tournament to be played. Called the Big Ten Championships. First up? Only the regular season champion, Penn State. On its home field, no less.
"We're going to have a chat today about staying focused," Illinois coach Jillian Ellis said Tuesday, a day before she and her team headed off for the first postseason game in the programs's two-year history. "That's got to be our objective, to keep our focus. With all that's going on, it could become distracting because we're so young."
How young? Fifteen freshmen strong. But what the Illini lack in tournament experience, Ellis said, they make up in naivete. The Illini coach figures that quality could come in handy, especially when facing Penn State: No. 11 national ranking, No. 1 seed, 7-1-1 record in the Big Ten, NCAA tournament appearances the last three years.
"They're going into it kind of fearless," said Ellis of her team, which has only one player – Virginia transfer Kelly Buszkiewicz – with postseason experience. "In talking to the kids, they wouldn't mind playing anybody again, but they wanted Penn State and (second seed) Wisconsin because of how they did against them during the regular season."
The eighth-seeded Illini (12-7, 3-6) get half their wish at 10 a.m. Friday, when they open the Big Ten tournament against Penn State. And as the Illini learned in their regular season meeting with the Lions, they seemingly have nothing to fear.
"I think we've earned respect this year," said Ellis, citing a hard-fought 3-2 loss to visiting Penn State in September. "Penn State, I'm certain, won't overlook us."
The game will match the most prolific scoring teams in the Big Ten. Each had 18 goals in conference action, two more than any other school.
"Both teams are very attack-minded," Ellis said.
By combining firepower with stingy goalkeeping, Penn State was able to march to its first league title this season. Lions freshman Emily Oleksiuk recorded a Big Ten-high 97 saves and ranks third in average goals allowed (0.90). In league action, Penn State is third in the same category at 0.96.
In contrast, Illinois ranks eighth in goals allowed (1.32) in Big Ten action.
One advantage Ellis sees is the timing of this tournament. Illinois enters on a roll, winning its last three games by a combined margin of 12-2. In addition, two of the UI's Big Ten wins came in its last five league games.
"We're coming off three very good games, so I think we're starting to peak," Ellis said. "But it's still about performance. When you step across those white lines, it's time to perform."