Local connection prepped for opener
CHAMPAIGN – As the Illinois women''s soccer team watched the U.S. Olympic team win the gold medal on Thursday, freshman Ella Masar was in the back bouncing a ball and generally acting fidgety.
It wasn''t so much anxiety about the U.S. team''s nail-biting victory. The Urbana native is a bundle of energy, and she''s boiling over with excitement about today''s 1 p.m. opener with Missouri.
"It''s amazing," Masar said of college soccer. "I absolutely love it. I wouldn''t change it for anything right now. The girls are amazing. The trainers are great. I''m so happy."
Most folks in the Illini camp are happy, knowing they return most of the starting lineup from a team that posted the program''s best record (16-4-2), won its first Big Ten tournament championship and entered the 2004 season ranked 14th nationally.
What promises to be an exciting season for Illinois also should provide a treat for area prep soccer fans. Sophomore Brittany Ward and Masar both should log playing time as the Illini chase a conference title.
"I feel more comfortable, but there are still a lot of steps to be taken," said Ward, a 2003 Centennial grad. "It''s constantly getting better and better."
So are the Illini, who bring back most of the Big Ten''s top defense and a first-team All-American in Leisha Alcia, who holds nearly every goalkeeping record in the book. The challenge this year, head coach Janet Rayfield said, is to find more scorers to ease the burden on second-team All-American Tara Hurless.
Ward and Masar will be part of the rotation along with Hurless, Andrea Ridgeway, Jessica Bayne and Eva Strickland.
"It''s a competition, and it''s also very helpful because the three of us who are not in, you''re constantly watching and learning," Ward said. "If you''re playing, you''re learning on the field. When we watch film, it''s easier because everyone is active and the six of us get in the game. We have a lot of explosiveness, if everything goes by the book."
Ward got on the books her freshman season, playing in 21 of 22 games and scoring two goals with three assists.
Ward said she wants to lower her fouls and keep from getting pushed off the ball.
"It''s not so much even your size, it''s your strength and your body positioning on the ball," Ward said. "Those are all things I had to learn. You learn from playing against the best defenders in the Big Ten. Playing them is amazing."
Ward played in a women''s league in Chicago and played in the State Cup with the Windy City Pride club team.
"She''s still learning, and she''s still improving," Rayfield said. "The thing she has is great physical courage. She''s going to score some goals just because she''s willing to go into a tackle and go into a battle with a goalkeeper and get that kind of scrappy goal. That''s going to be her strength."
Where Ward has been strong technically and tactically, Masar has been impressive physically in practice. Coming off surgery to repair shin splints in both legs, Masar is at 95 percent, Rayfield said.
"She''s taking care of the surgery, but she''s not nursing it," Rayfield said. "She''s able to be explosive and do things.
"She''s a different athlete than she was at the end of her high school season. She''s making sure those legs are not a problem."
Masar said playing alongside Ward, her former Little Illini Soccer Club teammate, has been great. Ward said their arrival in consecutive years is a good reflection on area soccer and especially their club squad, which produced college players such as Tricia Johnson (Western Illinois), Kelly D''Amico (Evansville), Karissa and Bailey Brenner (Eastern Illinois) and Elise McAuley (Evansville).
"I remember the first Little Illini person who went to play club was Erica Peters, and that was a huge deal," Ward said. "The coaches told us ''This is what you can do.'' Just to see there''s a swarm of us going now, I love it. I hope it continues."
Rayfield said that Little Illini group had great support from the community, and the fact that team traveled to play top-notch competition was important.
"There''s a little bit of a void now as we move on," Rayfield said. "There''s not the depth of talent there was when Brit and Ella came through. We''re looking at some of the 9-, 10-, 11-year-olds and young people we had at our clinic last weekend, and there are some great athletes out there. We''ve got to provide them with a soccer environment so they can have the same opportunities that Brit and Ella had."
Masar, who''s known Ward since they were 8-year-olds, said they used to joke about building Masar-Ward Stadium for youth players.
"Champaign-Urbana has never really been known for women''s soccer," Masar said. "The fact that both of us came out back-to-back years is great. I think it shows you don''t have to be an All-American and everything.
"If you work hard, you can make it. It''s a dream, and I''m excited."
The Illinois women''s soccer team begins its season today at home against Missouri. Here are five keys to the season for the defending Big Ten tournament champs:
1. The Illini are ranked 14th nationally and second in the Big Ten behind No. 4 Penn State. After losing four players – two starters – the pressure will be on to at least duplicate their best season to date. Illinois posted its best record, logged its best Big Ten finish, won the conference tournament and earned a No. 16 NCAA tournament seed.
"The external expectations have become something we had to deal with," head coach Janet Rayfield said. "We always believed we could have the success we had last year. Now there are external expectations to continue the success, and that''s a different environment for this team. We''ve challenged this team to embrace that and say ''OK, we''ve earned this.'' Our success was something we worked hard for. And the target on our chest now is something we asked for, and now we have to keep it there."
2. Despite all those accomplishments in 2003, the Illini were upset by Western Michigan at home in the first round of the NCAA tournament. They have to turn that disappointment into a driving force, and it looks like they did with a lot of offseason work.
"We set goals, and last year the only goal we didn''t achieve was going to the Sweet 16," goalkeeper Leisha Alcia said. "There''s still that sting, that feeling of not accomplishing it. It drove us this summer, and everybody worked hard."
Find a voice
3. Illinois lost an All-Big Ten defender and spiritual leader when Meghan Kolze graduated. They have plenty of leadership candidates, from co-captains Tara Hurless and Alcia to junior defender Kelly Campbell, who was the defensive MVP of the Big Ten tournament. Campbell, Sarah Brown and Natasha Karniski – who contributed to 13 shutouts – should be solid in front of Alcia again.
"Sarah Brown has stepped up and is playing well," Alcia said. "Kelly Campbell can be that vocal leader that Meghan was. The defense should be great again."
4. Hurless earned All-America honors by scoring 13 goals. The next-highest scorer was Jessica Bayne with seven. With Big Ten defenses concentrating on Hurless this season, Rayfield needs scoring threats to emerge from a group of Bayne, Andrea Ridgeway, Eva Strickland, Brittany Ward and Ella Masar. The four returnees combined for 15 goals last year, but they''ll need more.
"We''ve got to come at teams from a lot of different areas, and the six forwards we have all have different strengths," Rayfield said. "So if we can cause teams to defend different things and change things up and always have someone on and have different ways to score, that will be a key to our success."
One game at a time
5. The old cliche was a mantra for Illinois last year. All season, Rayfield said her players focused on the game at hand, and that helped them put up 16 wins – six in a row at one point – and climb up the Big Ten standings. They''ll need the same determination while working in a strong class of freshmen this year.
"Our freshmen came in and stepped it up, and they''re going to help the team out right away," Hurless said. "We play hard, and everyone''s connecting. We improved a lot, and we have so many opportunities to do well."
You can reach Brian Dietz at (217) 443-8945 or via e-mail at email@example.com.