Alcia has Illini headed in right direction
CHAMPAIGN – Leisha Alcia''s goalkeeping career began the same as most soccer netminders.
"I was probably 5-foot-2 at the age of 9, so you stick the big, goofy kid in net," Alcia said. "Also, I kind of wanted to play in net. I didn''t think I would stick with it."
But she fell in love with the position, and Alcia quickly learned that she was pretty good at it. Twelve years later, the Mississauga, Ontario, native is setting records in goal and helping lead Illinois into the Big Ten tournament with the second seed, its highest ever.
Alcia, whose Illini take on seventh-seeded Michigan State at 10:30 a.m. Thursday in Madison, Wis., leads the conference in goals-against average (0.54) and shutouts (nine). Both are single-season school records, and she also owns career marks for shutouts and saves.
Good thing that "goofy kid" was better at stopping goals than scoring them.
"I definitely think everybody wants to be the glory goal scorer at young ages, and a lot of times it''s the nonathlete that gets put in the goal," coach Janet Rayfield said. "I think we''re fortunate that as a great athlete, whether it was someone else''s vision or Leisha herself to put herself in the goal, to have that kind of athlete in the net is great for us."
It''s been great for the nation''s seventh-ranked defense. Alcia has earned Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week honors three times, posted a string of five shutouts at midseason and likely would have 10 shutouts total if she hadn''t come out of a 6-0 win against Ohio with 15 minutes left.
"The good thing is we haven''t relied on her or put her in situations where she''s had to be the game-saver very often," Rayfield said. "Against Purdue, we did put her in that position and she rose to the occasion."
Alcia made 11 saves in that game, a double-overtime affair that ended 1-1. She made four saves in the OTs, and they all were highlight-reel worthy.
Those kind of plays can change momentum and give her defenders even more confidence, teammate Meghan Kolze said.
"Not that we can make mistakes, but we''re confident in having her back there that she can cover for us," Kolze said.
Kolze said there have been too many spectacular stops to remember. But it''s been her leadership, from directing traffic to her pregame dance in the locker room, that''s stood out this season.
"She''s very vocal, and when she wants us to do something, she demands it," Kolze said. "I think she always tried to be, but I don''t think it picked up until this year. I think she''s become more confident with herself and her ability to come out and be confident she can make those big saves. With that being said and with her having such a good season, it''s allowed her to speak more and demand more of us."
That hasn''t come naturally. Alcia played with a semi-pro team this summer and learned a lot about the game. She also learned how to study film and organize the defense better.
Alcia, whose ultimate dream is to start in goal for the Canadian National Team, played a pair of games with Team Canada and is "within the top four or five" with that squad. She enjoyed the challenge of those camps, so it''s easy to see why she loves tending goal.
"I think it''s being the last defender, for sure," Alcia said. "A lot of people count on you. You can either break or save a game."
IN IT TO WIN IT
The Illini are one of the favorites to win this weekend''s Big Ten tournament. With a conference championship and seed position for the NCAAs at stake, here are three keys to coming back from Wisconsin with the title:
The Illini are coming off their best regular season and have their highest seed in the tournament. But they know better than anybody that seeds don''t mean much. A year ago, the eighth-seeded Illini knocked off top dog Penn State in the quarterfinals. So they can''t take the opener for granted.
Stick to the plan
The Illinois defense has allowed 10 goals all season, shattering the old school record of 26. They''re one shutout away from another record, and coach Janet Rayfield expects her stingy defense to keep frustrating Big Ten teams.
Spread the wealth
Tara Hurless leads the team with 12 goals and 34 shots, which is more than twice the next Illini''s numbers. Hurless is the top choice, but when you have to win three games in four days, you''re going to need other options to come through.
You can reach Brian Dietz at (217) 443-8945 or via e-mail at email@example.com.