Illini end their best season with first-round NCAA loss
CHAMPAIGN – All season long, different heroes emerged for the Illinois women''s soccer team. Someone was always in the right place at the right time to save the day.
So down 1-0 at the half with their leading scorer on the bench injured Friday night, the ninth-ranked, 16th-seeded Illini never imagined they would lose to Western Michigan.
"We were really positive going into halftime," fifth-year senior Meghan Kolze said. "We were confident we were going to win this game."
But it didn''t happen. In a season of firsts, Illinois'' season ended in the first round of the NCAA tournament with a shocking 2-0 loss to the Broncos.
Less than a week after winning its first Big Ten tournament title, the Illini closed 2003 with a school-record 16-4-2 mark and the sting of an early exit.
"One of the songs in our warmup is ''You can''t stand outside the fire,'' " coach Janet Rayfield said. "We put ourselves in the fire all season long, and the risk that you take is you get burned sometimes. I think that''s what we feel right now."
Emotions ran high after Illinois'' dream season took a turn for the worse 20 minutes into the first half. Western Michigan''s Chantal Robinson blasted a free kick past keeper Leisha Alcia to give the Broncos the lead.
Illinois kept up pressure and had numerous chances to score throughout the game. Tara Hurless, who did not practice this week because of a knee injury, entered with 25 minutes left in the game and provided a spark, but Illinois could not hit the net. Jessica Pattison''s goal with five minutes left sealed the loss.
"This is a tough night for us," Rayfield said. "Western Michigan came out and did what they had to do and played a great game.
"I just told the team that they can''t let tonight take away from what has been an absolutely tremendous year. This team has taken this program places it hasn''t ever been before and done things that no program at the University of Illinois has ever done."
Along with the most wins and their first conference tournament championship, the Illini posted their best regular season Big Ten finish (second), achieved their highest national ranking and set records for shutouts, consecutive wins, consecutive shutouts and fewest goals allowed.
"Next year, we have to learn from our experiences and move forward and hopefully come out with a win," Alcia said. "I think probably after all the emotions, tomorrow we''ll sit down and it will sink in. As soon as everything settles down and we think about it, we''ll be proud of everything we accomplished."
Illinois returns nine of its 11 starters, its top three scorers and all but four players.
"I think we''ll obviously miss leadership from our senior class," Rayfield said. "I think when you see these emotions, that''s who you feel emotional for. That senior class has led us to the best season ever, and the sad part about tonight is that it''s over for them.
"But the core that''s coming back, I think now has something to build on. We took what happened to us last year and built on that and had a great regular season and had a great conference tournament. I think we''ll take this loss and put that down as another experience to add to this group of players coming back. Players like Leisha and Tara Hurless and Chris Sinak will lead next year''s team, we hope, to even greater heights."
Kolze expects good things from the 2004 Illini.
"They have nine of the 11 starters coming back, and I know that doesn''t mean anything come preseason," Kolze said. "But they''ve got a solid core coming back, and with the recruits coming in, I think they can only go up."
Purdue 2, DePaul 1
The Boilermakers (13-5-2) got goals from Courtney Coppedge and Jennie Moppert to advance face Western Michigan at 2 p.m. Sunday.
You can reach Brian Dietz at (217) 443-8945 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.