Illini believe they have the right mix to make Big Ten waves

Illini believe they have the right mix to make Big Ten waves

CHAMPAIGN – There''s no better expert on Illinois soccer than Rebecca Johnson. She''s been around for five of the program''s six years, has gone through three head coaches and has seen the Illini go from the Big Ten basement to the conference championship game.
She knows what she''s talking about.
This is my fifth year, and this is the tightest we''ve ever been, Johnson said. We go to dinner, and everyone sits with different people each time. There are no cliques or anything. I don''t think it''s ever been that tight before.
That''s why expectations are high for the Illini as they open the season tonight at Missouri. Despite a having new coach, a new system and nine freshmen on the roster, they believe they can improve on last year''s 12-8-1 record and Big Ten tournament title game appearance.
With a No. 23 ranking in the National Soccer Coaches Association of America/adidas poll, they''re not alone.
That shows what this program has done in the past and that the quality of freshmen coming in have earned outsiders'' respect, coach Janet Rayfield said. I''m happy for them that they can see they''ve earned that respect. They want to accomplish goals they set for themselves, and the poll that will matter at the end of the year is whether or not we''ve achieved what we think we can accomplish. We''ll poll ourselves at the end to determine where we''ve ended up in that one.
Rayfield, a former head coach at Arkansas and ex-UI assistant, and the Illini hope that poll will be taken during the NCAA tournament. Illinois has reached the postseason the past two years, and eight returning starters want a third trip.
They''re looking for more than a third-place conference finish and a deeper run into the postseason.
Back two years ago, we set goals where we''re looking to win a Big Ten championship and make the Sweet 16, said Tara Schuling, who shares captain duties with Meghan Kolze and Johnson. We can honestly say that all 25 of us plus the coaching staff feel that we can do this. We''re willing to do whatever it takes to reach those goals.
It''s taken some new approaches in practice and a camping trip to Woods Retreat Center in Potomac during the preseason. Playing paintball and watching teammates go through a high-ropes course was a blast for Johnson, and it served a purpose chemistrywise.
The trip helped blend in the freshman class, which Schuling said already has met expectations off the field, but they''re all working well together on the field during eye-opening practices.
Practices have been intense, Johnson said. I would say it''s definitely the most thinking I''ve done in preseason. I''ve learned a lot. We have an excellent coaching staff, and we''re learning something new every day and getting a whole new grasp on how the game is played.
Rayfield has young but experienced scorers in Tara Hurless and Tiffani Walker, and the offense will get a boost when Emily Ward returns from injury Sunday and Laura Freeman in October. Rayfield also has an ace up her sleeve: The school''s all-time leading scorer, Emily Brown, returned after taking last year off.
She''s getting there slowly but surely, Rayfield said of Brown, who has 46 career goals. I think we''re excited about the thought of what she can do when she gets fit.
The defense is solid with Schuling, Johnson, Andrea Ridgeway and Kolze, who missed most of last season with a knee injury, in front of sophomore goalkeeper Leisha Alcia, who made the Big Ten all-tournament team last year.
Mix in freshmen Laura Redmond, Kelly Campbell and Paula Faherty with veterans Christine Sinak and Hollie Schurr, and Rayfield has plenty of options.
We''re looking at what combinations are going to work best, Rayfield said. With the new subtitution rule (players can re-enter once in the first half) it gives us more freedom. We can use different combinations in a half or a game, and that allows us to show some different looks.
Johnson was glad Rayfield assistants Eric Bell and Dale Armstrong were on last year''s team instead of the Illini starting over again with their leadership. Johnson said the players are growing faster and faster together, and Rayfield is excited about this season and the future.
I took this job because I think the potential of this program is great, Rayfield said. Those expectations haven''t changed. Seeing this team and the team chemistry they have and the work they''ve done over the summer, if anything, they''ve gotten higher. This team can achieve great things.

Surprise, surprise. Soccer Buzz magazine named Penn State''s Christie Welsh the preseason national player of the year. When she wins the conference player of the year award in a few months, it will be her fourth. Welsh is one of eight All-Big Ten first-teamers returning this year, joining Iowa''s Sarah Lynch, Michigan''s Abby Crumpton and Amy Sullivant, Purdue''s Elise Berry, Northwestern''s Molly Greene and the Nittany Lions'' Heidi Drummond and Joanna Lohman.

Scoring punch
As you might expect with so many all-stars coming back, nine of the league''s top 10 goal scorers return, including Illinois'' Tara Hurless. The speedy forward notched 10 goals to rank fifth in the conference, tied with Lynch and Ohio State''s Lisa Grubb, who beat Hurless for freshman of the year honors. If you''re wondering, Welsh led the league with 25 goals and holds the conference record with 65.

Rank and file
The Illini checked in with a No. 23 national ranking in the National Soccer Coaches Association of America/adidas preseason poll, and they weren''t alone. Penn State was eighth in the NSCAA/adidas poll, sixth in Soccer America and sixth in Soccer Buzz. Michigan ranked 18th in the NSCAA/adidas poll. Soccer Buzz ranks Illinois eighth in the Great Lakes region. Santa Clara tops the coaches poll and Soccer Buzz list, and Soccer America listed North Carolina first.

Coaching carousel
Illinois'' Janey Rayfield is not the only new coach in the conference. Carla Baker took over the Iowa program after serving as an assistant at Notre Dame and Cornell before running a soccer consulting company in Dallas. Mick Lyon got the Indiana job after forging a 107-65-18 record in nine years at Evansville. A note for Illini fans: former Illinois assistant K.C. Crabb hooked on with Purdue as an assistant coach under Rob Klatte.

Sections (3):Illini Sports, Sports, Soccer
Categories (3):Illini Sports, Soccer, Sports

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