CHAMPAIGN – Tara Schuling looks at vacant spots in the lineup and sees opportunity for others.
About to play their first NCAA tournament game tonight, Schuling and her Illinois women's soccer team aren't lamenting the loss of juniors Lindsay Johnson and Lisa Baldwin. Instead, they're showing the kind of confidence that carried the Illini to a school-best 13-7-0 record.
"One thing about this team is we've got a lot of depth coming off the bench," Schuling said. "If one person is not going to be there, we've got at least two more people backing them up."
Johnson, a starting midfielder, is out with a knee injury she sustained Friday against Penn State. On a stranger note, Baldwin, who started all 20 games at forward this season, withdrew from school and left the team last weekend to return to Lindenhurst, N.Y.
"It's a shocker," Taliaferro said. "She decided she wanted to be closer to her friends and family. It's one of those things where everybody has rallied around.
"Some players have to step up, and I've already talked to a couple of them. They're willing to do it."
That could mean freshman Tiffani Walker and sophomore Laura Freeman up front.
They'll need some offensive punch going against a Xavier team that has posted 11 shutouts and allowed three goals since in its last 14 games.
"We've played a lot of good defenses all year," Walker said. "I know we're ready."
Walker and Freeman have been regular substitutes all year and will get more time tonight. Walker, who has used a mix of power and speed to score six goals this season, has six starts this season.
"It's a lot different coming off the bench," Walker said. "I wasn't used to that. It's been an experience."
Freeman started half of Illinois' games in 1999 and has been a top reserve this year. She has five goals and earned Big Ten Player of the Week honors in mid-October with a three-goal weekend.
"We've got to play the offense the way we've been playing," Freeman said. "We've got to take it to them, get through their seams and get some opportunities. Whatever happens, happens."
Taliaferro said both players are on their game, and she believes the offense will run smoothly. She was more worried about the Illini looking ahead to possible second-round foe Penn State.
Xavier hasn't lost since Sept. 20 and boasts a tough goalkeeper. Schuling got a scouting report from a friend at Fordham, which lost to Xavier on Oct. 1.
The Illini hope to continue the Big Ten's recent success in the tournament: The three league schools that made last year's tournament all won their first game.
But that's no guarantee for Illinois.
"We're going to have a meeting and tell them it's not good enough now to just make it," Taliaferro said. "We're going to focus on Xavier. I think the biggest problem most teams have that lose in the first round is they overlook the first team they're playing."
Illinois was able to avoid looking ahead in its Big Ten opener, squashing Michigan State to earn a second game with Penn State. Taliaferro said the high-pressure environment of the conference tournament helped the Illini prepare for tonight's game.
Taliaferro made her first NCAA appearance as a junior at Maryland and planned to share that experience with her team.
"This is why you play," Taliaferro said. "You want to win a national championship, and being able to play in the postseason is what it's all about.
"A lot of teams don't get this opportunity. As a player, you have to make the best of it. As a coach, we want them to understand this is one game and you're out."
NCAA WOMEN'S COLLEGE CUP
Xavier (14-6-1) vs. Illinois (13-7)
7 p.m. at Illini Field
Tickets: $7 adults, $5 students
Xavier: Dr. Ron Quinn (eight years, 98-57-9)
Illinois: Tricia Taliaferro (two years, 25-15-2)
Xavier: Annette Gruber (Sr., 9 G, 9 A), Erin Coley (Sr., 5 G, 1 A), Lindsay Yonadi (Fr., 3 G, 2 A), Tracy Veith (Fr., 2 G, 2 A), Nicole Giestling (Fr., 0 G, 6 A).
Illinois: Emily Brown (Jr., 15 G, 5 A), Colleen Joyce (Jr., 10 G, 5 A), Tara Schuling (So., 7 G, 3 A), Tiffani Walker (Fr., 6 G, 0 A), Lindsay Johnson (Jr., 3 G, 6 A).
Xavier: Megan Veith (So., 14-6-1, 11 SHO, 1.04 GAA)
Illinois: Sarah Anderson (Fr., 8-2-0, 4 SHO, 1.09 GAA)
Outlook: The Illini might have squeaked into their first-ever NCAA tournament, but they are in good shape with a home game against the Atlantic 10 Conference champion Musketeers. The Atlantic 10 never has sent an NCAA team past the second round, and Xavier's lone trip ended with a first-round loss to Michigan in 1998. With a potential third game with Penn State next, Illinois will have plenty of motivation.