Setback a reminder for Illinois
CHAMPAIGN – If they wanted to use this weekend''s series against No. 11 Ohio State and No. 14 Penn State as a measuring stick, then the Illinois women''s soccer team found it stacked up pretty well against the Big Ten''s elite.
The No. 25 Illini knocked off the Buckeyes on Friday, then played Penn State tight in a 2-0 loss Sunday in front of 821 fans at Illinois Soccer Stadium.
"I think we''re going to be OK," midfielder Andrea Ridgeway said. "We''re not happy with the loss, but I think it''s one of those things we''re going to use to make us better. Hopefully, it''s something to improve upon and we''ll face them in the Big Ten tournament."
That''s the ultimate goal for the Illini, who suffered their first conference loss and fell two points behind the Nittany Lions in the league race. Penn State leads the Big Ten with a 6-1 record (18 points), followed by Illinois (5-1-1; 16 points) and Purdue (5-1-1; 16 points).
With three conference games to go, the Illini have locked up their third winning record in the Big Ten and have a shot at topping the third-place finish they had in 2001.
"We still have a shot to win the conference," Ridgeway said. "We have some good games ahead, and they are going to be tough. We know we have the talent. We are just thinking about one game at a time. And if a championship comes with that, that''s an added bonus."
Illinois faces an improving Indiana team and the Boilermakers next week before finishing the conference season with Northwestern on Oct. 24.
"I still feel pretty good," coach Janet Rayfield said. "We come away from this game saying ''We''ve got things to do. We''ve got to improve.'' But we''re close, so we know we can go back and work, and they''re going to go back and work. So the question is, who can make the most progress between now to the end of the season and who can make the most progress from now until Friday?"
They made some progress after a slow start Sunday. Penn State dominated play early, and several of Leisha Alcia''s eight saves kept it to 1-0 at the half.
Behind Ridgeway, Eva Strickland and a spark from Brittany Ward, Illinois pressured the Nittany Lions during the second half. Ridgeway shot wide on one attempt with about 39 minutes left, then had a point-blank shot blocked by a defender 10 minutes later. Penn State goalie Amanda Brown also caught a header from Paula Faherty before the Nittany Lions got their second goal.
"We created some chances in the second half, and I thought that was a positive," Rayfield said. "But we''ve got to finish some of those, because then the game becomes different. If we finish one of those and it''s a 1-1 game, that''s a lot different than them being up 1-0 and having confidence. We''ll work on those things."
The Illini have lost 11 of their 12 meetings with Penn State. Considering the two teams have met in the conference tournament four of the last five years, Ridgeway and her teammates could get another shot.
"It was a little frustrating," Ridgeway said. "It''s one of those things where you have to come back and take out your frustration on Indiana."
You can reach Brian Dietz at (217) 443-8945 or via e-mail at email@example.com.