CHAMPAIGN – The program said Monday night's women's soccer game between Illinois and the Mexican national team was part of the "Spring Sports Fest."
For a few hundred hardy fans at Illini Field, it felt more like Big Ten football season – in late November. But Ron Turner's Illini never played in weather like this.
With the temperature dipping into the low 30s and a polar wind blowing from the north, Mexico's players thawed out in time, scoring all their goals in the second half of a 4-1 exhibition victory.
"I think it's tough in these conditions to really see where we are," junior Emily Brown said. "We had some good combinations we were definitely excited about. Once we got in the second half, they were pounding it down our throats."
When the snow began falling – actually it was more like blowing straight across the field – with 12 minutes left, it was hard enough just seeing the ball, let alone evaluating the team.
"It didn't seem like it was going to get that cold," junior Rebecca Patrick said. "The second half it came out of nowhere. We're against the wind and then we got this snow blowing straight in our face."
The game was already out of hand at that point, but Brown would have liked a shot at the Mexican team under normal weather conditions.
The Illini knew the Mexican national team, which started four players from its 1999 World Cup qualifier, could provide a measuring stick for the program.
Through the wind and snow, Illinois head coach Tricia Taliaferro saw what she wanted.
"It was a great experience for us to play against Mexico's elite," Taliaferro said. "And some of the things we did, we did really well. Some of the things we look at and improve on. That's what we wanted to get out of this.
"I think going through the spring and the training we've been doing, each game we've gotten better. With the weather or without the weather, I could still see the positives out of playing them tonight."
Playing with the wind in the first half, Illinois took a 1-0 lead to the break after forward Tiffani Walker headed in Brown's crossing pass.
But the Mexican team scored three goals in less than nine minutes early in the second half, and Illinois managed two shots on goal in the second half.
"We just came into it blind knowing this was our best opportunity we're going to get to play a national team," Patrick said. "Even with the loss, we were up 1-0 in the first half, and we played phenomenal. I thought we played a wonderful game. We'll learn from that. We'll realize we played a really good game against a national team."
Brown called Monday's game the "culmination of everything we've done in spring practice." The Illini have one more tournament in St. Louis this weekend before finishing their spring season.
Illinois started the spring by winning its seven-on-seven indoor tournament at the Irwin Indoor Practice Facility, reached the semifinals of an indoor tournament at Iowa then took third in its outdoor tournament on April 7-8.
"The biggest thing we've been focusing on is team play and some specifics for individual players," Taliaferro said. "Overall, what we want to accomplish is playing different teams with different styles and adjusting to that."
Taliaferro returns all 11 starters from a team that reached the NCAA tournament for the first time last fall. Brown said the team is improving by the week and "getting to know each other better."
The players will scatter to their club teams during the summer. About half will stay on campus, others will play on select teams, and Patrick, who gets married in two months, will be on her honeymoon.
They'll return Aug. 3 for a 12-day trip to Scotland and England. The freshman class, which was ranked in the top 30 by Soccer Buzz, reports the day after the team returns.
The Illini lost two senior reserves and junior transfer Lisa Baldwin. But they have a strong upcoming nine-member senior class.
Add the incoming group of Canadian goalie Leisha Alcia, Gatorade Illinois Player of the Year Tara Hurless of Rockford and Parade All-America pick Christine Sinak of Webster Groves, Mo.
"I'm very excited about that class," Taliaferro said. "It's more specific players. Before, we were kind of recruiting all over the place. We're very fortunate.
"We lost players from last year, but these guys are going to come in and contribute and hopefully grow with the team as it's going. Our development is going fast."