CHAMPAIGN – Maggie Kellett smiles and says her Illinois women's soccer team isn't looking ahead to Oct. 14, the day the Illini host Penn State. Rebecca (Patrick) Johnson rolls her eyes and says the Illini have a great rivalry with the Nittany Lions, but it's not tearing her apart.
Entering the fifth year of the program, the Illini are 0-7 against Penn State, including a pair of overtime losses that knocked Illinois out of the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments in the same week last fall. Illinois players give you the "one game at a time" spiel, but their coach, Tricia Taliaferro, knows better.
"It still hurts," she said. "Penn State is always there. There are a few teams in the Big Ten Conference we haven't beaten. It's something we're shooting for. That's the next step for us. And I think there's a little special place in their heart for Penn State."
Coming off a breakthrough season in which the Illini finished with their best record (14-8) and made their NCAA tournament debut, wins against Penn State and Michigan are the next milestones.
Illinois opens the 2001 season tonight at Iowa State. The Illini are ranked 23rd by Soccer Buzz magazine, but they have one win all time against the Lions, Wolverines and Wisconsin – the three teams that finished above the Illini in the conference standings.
"If we want to keep improving and if we want to finish higher than fourth, those are the teams to beat," Taliaferro said. "But there are some other teams coming up. Everyone's talking about the conference being wide open."
Illinois hosts Michigan (Sept. 21) and Penn State, and, considering the Illini are 18-6 all time at home, that should help the cause. But becoming a consistent NCAA qualifier also is important.
Taliaferro doesn't want the Illini to become soccer's version of Dexy's Midnight Runners.
"The biggest thing is not becoming a one-hit wonder," Taliaferro said. "I want to do better than what we did last year. The way we've gone as a program, I'm willing to take small steps to be successful. But I don't want to be saying, 'We went to the tournament last year,' and not see it again."
Illinois players got a taste of the tournament a year ago, beating Xavier in the opening round before losing to Penn State. After years of hearing Taliaferro talk about the tournament, the Illini gained valuable experience themselves.
"Overall with everybody back, the whole field is going to be a strength," said Kellett, a sophomore defender. "I think it was a huge experience. Now that we've been there, it's something you want to shoot for. It's an amazing experience."
The Illini expect to return. Despite leading scorer Emily Brown leaving the team this summer, Illinois returns 10 other starters and most of the bench. Six freshmen are working themselves into the lineup.
"The freshmen came in this year, and they're going to be able to contribute," Johnson said. "I think it's great to see them coming in, working hard and to be able to fit in so quickly. It raises the level of everyone else. You can't just sit back."
The veterans did not just sit back during a 12-day trip to England and Scotland in mid-August. The competition and the travel helped the Illini get a jump on training camp and in team chemistry.
The Illini went 2-2 against teams Taliaferro compared to Top 15 college competition. Even in a five-goal loss to Fulham, a professional team, Johnson saw good signs.
"That one we played really well and lost by a good margin," she said. "They were an incredible team: Two or three of their players played for their World Cup team. Their coach came up and said we're one of the best college team's he's ever played. That was a testament to how we played and stepped up to their level."
Between games, they toured castles, checked out London and visited a William Wallace monument – so what if the statues of Scotland's greatest hero don't quite look like Mel Gibson's character in "Braveheart."
"It was something to help everybody bond together," Johnson said. "We learned to overcome dealing with idiosyncrasies with the team. We were having games and seeing these cool sights together. You look at the pictures and we had a really good time. You combine soccer and friendships."
With an experienced team – there are 12 upperclassmen – Taliaferro hopes soccer and friendship combine for another memorable season.
"I'm excited," Taliaferro said. "It's nice to have a team that's experienced and has gone through it for four years."
Through the first four years of the Illinois women's soccer team, the Illini are 13-23-2 in Big Ten play. Here's a look at their records against conference foes, including postseason tournaments.
Team, W-L-T, Pct.
Ohio State, 3-1-0, .750
Purdue, 2-1-0, .667
Northwestern, 2-1-1, .625
Michigan State, 3-2-0, .600
Minnesota, 2-2-0, .500
Iowa, 2-3-0, .400
Indiana, 1-2-1, .375
Wisconsin, 1-3-0, .250
Michigan, 0-5-0, .000
Penn State, 0-7-0, .000