CHAMPAIGN – They lead the Big Ten and recently jumped into the national rankings. But halfway through the Big Ten season, how good is the Illinois soccer team?
"We have the possibility to be one of the best teams in the history of the school," senior Tiffani Walker said. "We have a lot of potential, and we could go down as the best in my four years, anyway."
Walker''s been part of the school''s best teams so far, so she would know. The rest of the conference will know after this weekend.
The Illini, ranked 25th in the NSCAA/Adidas Coaches Poll and 25 in Soccer Buzz magazine, host No. 11 Ohio State at 7 tonight and meet nemesis Penn State, which is ranked 14th, at noon Sunday.
"I think this is a big test," said Walker, who might not play because of a knee injury. "We''ve played some good teams, but this is our biggest challenge."
It''s a defining weekend for a team that''s 1-1 against ranked teams this season – losing to No. 17 Auburn and beating No. 20 Michigan State.
"We''re playing two teams that have been ranked in the Top 15 all season long," coach Janet Rayfield said. "These are teams that started where we''re climbing to. It should tell us a lot about how far we''ve come and what we have to do to compete in the conference and the NCAAs."
Walker and Rayfield have a grasp of the big picture, but the reason for Illinois'' 8-2-1 overall mark and its 4-0-1 record in the conference comes back to an old sports cliche. When the Illini say they''re taking it one game at a time, they mean it.
"There''s still a lot to be decided," Rayfield said. "The conference is so tight, and there''s a lot of soccer to be played. I don''t think this decides the conference. It''s an important weekend for us, but we''re not focusing on a conference title. We''re focusing on Ohio State."
The Buckeyes are tied with Illinois for the Big Ten lead in goals allowed (six), and the Illini badly want to lead that category at the end of the season. Penn State won its first 10 games against Illinois before last year''s team beat the Lions in the Big Ten tournament.
Rayfield said getting that win a year ago removed a "psychological barrier," but that doesn''t mean much to Walker.
"They''re a different team, and so are we," Walker said. "And this opens a whole new floodgate. Now they know we can beat them, and they''re going to be charged up to play us. And they know this is important for position in the postseason."
This weekend also will give Illinois'' talented group of freshmen a chance to measure up against the best. Jessica Bayne is starting and is second on the team with nine points. Brittany Ward scored her first career goal, and Eva Strickland had three assists in the team''s last game.
"Our freshmen are having an impact," Rayfield said. "Our freshmen are getting more comfortable and are making a difference."
The Illinois soccer team will play pivotal games against conference contenders Ohio State and Penn State this weekend. Here''s a look at both games.
No. 11 Ohio State (8-1-2, 2-1-2)
7 tonight, Illinois Soccer Stadium
Series: Tied 3-3, but the Buckeyes have won two straight.
Who to watch on the Buckeyes: Colleen Hoban leads a balanced offense with five goals. Defender Paige Harrison leads the Big Ten with seven assists. Ohio State has played three goalkeepers, but freshman Staci Sinkway earned conference Co-Defensive Player of the Week honors after shutting out Michigan State last week.
Outlook: The Buckeyes are strong, physical and fast, and they''re off to their best start ever. Considering the two defenses, one goal probably will win, so the Illini need to get on the board early.
No. 14 Penn State (10-2-2, 4-1-0)
Noon Sunday, Illinois Soccer Stadium
Series: Penn State leads 10-1, the lone loss coming in last year''s Big Ten tournament.
Who to watch on the Nittany Lions: Reigning Offensive Player of the Week Tiffany Weimer leads the Big Ten with 13 goals, and returning All-American Joanna Lohman is second with 10 and needs one more point to hit 100 for her career. Heidi Drummond already did that earlier this season.
Outlook: Think the Nittany Lions still are ticked about that Big Ten quarterfinal loss? That was their only blemish en route to the College Cup Final Four last season. Illinois'' stingy defense must find a way to stop Drummond, Lohman, Weimer and Stephanie Smith, who are all in the top 10 in career goals for Penn State.
You can reach Brian Dietz at (217) 443-8945 or via e-mail at email@example.com.