Illini aren''t worried about potential third-round NCAA matchup

CHAMPAIGN – They knew they were in the field of 64, and they figured Champaign-Urbana would be a host site, so there wasn''t much drama for the Illinois soccer players who crammed into a conference room Monday afternoon at Ubben Basketball Complex to watch as the NCAA tournament pairings were announced on ESPNNews.

But it was still a special moment for coach Janet Rayfield, who will lead a team into the tournament for the first time. Illinois, which earned the 16th seed, will host Western Michigan at 7:30 p.m. Friday in a first-round game.

"As a coach, you think about the things you want to happen for your players," Rayfield said. "I told my father last night that it''s a lot different emotion seeing that up there as the coach than seeing that as the player. It''s just a sense of pride for and with these athletes that have worked hard to get there. That pride is an emotion I hadn''t felt before. And when I saw the name up there, it''s fun to feel that kind of feeling."

Purdue will meet DePaul at 4 p.m. in Friday''s other game. After the UI missed the NCAA tournament a year ago, it was important to be back in the field this year, senior Tiffani Walker said.

"I think last year taught us a whole bunch about ourselves," Walker said. "Now that I think back, it was something that helped us get better. We didn''t do so well, we figured it out in the spring and we''ve gotten this far. I think it helped us a lot, and we''re hoping to take this as far as we can."

The Big Ten champs were downright businesslike as they filled out bracket sheets and discussed the other seeds. They didn''t get riled up until Soccer America senior editor Scott French said "you''ve got to feel sorry for a team like Illinois."

French was referring to Illinois'' draw. If the Illini win their first two games, they will face top-seeded North Carolina, which is an overwhelming favorite to win its 17th national title.

"No, you shouldn''t feel sorry for us," junior Tara Hurless said. "You should feel great. We might play the No. 1 team. That''s a great experience."

Rayfield said her team will face that challenge if it comes. Rayfield and her staff will spend the next couple of days scrambling for information on Western Michigan and DePaul.

"Our goal is to get as far as we can and be the best team that we can, so at some point in that process North Carolina was probably going to end up in your path," Rayfield said. "The fact that it''s a little earlier than we''d like it to be, that doesn''t matter."

The players were excited to host the first two rounds. Illinois (16-3-2) is 15-4-1 the last two seasons at home.

"There''s something about this home field that gets us going," Walker said. "So we''re really glad we get to stay here for the week and get a good week of practice in."

The Illini head into the tournament with their highest ranking. They are ninth in the NSCAA/adidas poll and seventh in Soccer Buzz magazine.

Rayfield said the ranking is a testament to the players'' hard work, and it was nice to get that respect. But the Illini aren''t worried about seeds or polls this weekend.

"I think we have as strong of potential as anybody," freshman Jessica Bayne said. "I think if we''re playing well, no one can stop us. We don''t need to worry about anybody else but ourselves."

NCAA tournament by the numbers

0 losses in 21 matches for top-seeded North Carolina. This Tar Heels team is among the school''s best, and that''s saying a lot with 16 national titles in the trophy case. So have fun, High Point.

1 previous meeting between Illinois and first-round opponent Western Michigan. Illinois won 2-1 in overtime on Sept. 11, 1998.

2 previous NCAA tourney berths for Illinois (2000, 2001).

3 common opponents for the Broncos and Illini. For the record, WMU beat Oakland (3-2), Ohio twice (2-1 both times) and lost to Michigan State (5-1). Illinois lost to Oakland (1-0), hammered Ohio (6-0) and beat Michigan State twice (1-0, 2-0).

4 Illinois teams in tourney. The Illini are joined by Illinois State, Eastern Illinois and Loyola, which faces No. 2 seed Notre Dame (19-2-1) in the first round.

5 Big Ten teams in the tourney. Purdue is in Illinois'' bracket, Penn State earned the fifth seed and Ohio State and Michigan earned at-large berths. Michigan, which handed Notre Dame its first loss of the season, could play the Irish in the second round.

8 Big 12 teams in the field, more than any other conference.

13 wins for Western Michigan, which went 13-7-1 and won the Mid-American Conference tournament championship.

Brian Dietz is a News-Gazette staff writer. You can reach him at (217) 443-8945 or via e-mail at bdietz@news-gazette.com.

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

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