Big Ten soccer crown puts Illini in line to host first-round NCAA matches
MADISON, Wis. – After victories, the Illinois women''s soccer team likes to gather at midfield and chant "How do you feel? We feel good," a line from "Remember the Titans."
After their performance in the Big Ten tournament, the folks in Madison definitely will remember the Illini.
Illinois beat Michigan 2-0 on Sunday to win its first Big Ten tournament championship and cap a dominating weekend of soccer. The Illini became the second team in tournament history to shut out all three opponents, and they were the only team to score more than a goal in each game.
"It feels great because this team is a record-setting team," Tara Hurless said. "My freshman year, we were here and we lost in overtime. We''ve been in this position before, and we knew we had to win."
It took more than 80 minutes before Hurless put the Illini ahead 1-0. Freshman Jessica Bayne added her second goal of the tournament three minutes later to seal the victory. When the final whistle sounded, the Illinois players rushed to the middle of the field, formed a circle and celebrated.
"I think any time you win a championship, it feels great," second-year head coach Janet Rayfield said. "And given this is the first one, it makes it special.
"Given what we went through last year with the transition to the new coaching staff, it makes it even more special. This team has made huge strides for us this season."
The Illini (16-3-2) will find out its next step today, when NCAA tournament pairings are announced. Eleventh-ranked Illinois likely already had made the field, but Sunday''s championship should lock up first-round games in Champaign.
"The NCAA is seeding 16 teams for the first time, and we should be in the mix for the top 16," Rayfield said. "That would be great for us and for soccer in central Illinois. And when the rankings come out, we feel like we''ve got a good chance of being in single digits, and that''s a step for our program."
Low numbers are a specialty for Illinois, which posted its 13th shutout of the season. Sunday''s match was also the Illini''s sixth straight victory and shutout, both school records.
"It definitely shows what kind of team we are," defender Kelly Campbell said. "We broke the Big Ten record with three shutouts, so that shows how strong our defense is."
Hurless, who was the tournament''s offensive MVP, showed "courage" on the game-winning goal, Rayfield said. After tweaking her knee on a tackle, Hurless remained in the game, took a pass from Paula Faherty and banged it home from about 15 yards.
Hurless, who has five goals and five assists in eight career conference tournament games, was joined by Campbell and Faherty on the all-tournament team.
Hurless had a goal and two assists and continued to shine in the postseason.
"I think as the season goes on, Tara gets more and more confidence," Rayfield said. "This year, she also has confidence in her team.
"By the time the tournament rolls around, you count on her to step up, and she''s willing to take the heat."
Campbell was named the tournament''s defensive MVP as Illinois allowed 20 shots – 10 on goal – in three games. Keeper Leisha Alcia made five saves in Sunday''s game and 10 in the tournament.
"From the beginning, we knew we could win it," Campbell said. "I just hope to keep going."
You can reach Brian Dietz at (217) 443-8945 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.