CHAMPAIGN – Tara Hurless and her Illinois teammates don''t usually pay attention to the national polls. And their coach, Janet Rayfield, rarely talks about the rankings.
So it didn''t take long to figure out how important Tuesday''s rare midday match with Kansas was when Rayfield started running down the numbers.
The Illini had a chance at a double dose of history, and they didn''t disappoint in a 1-0 win against the Jayhawks. The victory gave No. 11 Illinois (6-0) its best-ever start, and the win against eighth-ranked Kansas was the program''s first against a Top 10 team.
"I don''t usually share polls with the players, but we shared it this time because a lot of polls out there had Kansas ahead of us," Rayfield said. "We said, ''You know what, the target on their chest is bigger than ours, and we don''t like that.'' We want the target to be on our chest. We want people to have high expectations.
"Today was about getting the target off their chest and putting it on ours. So far, we''ve been able to deal with that and have embraced having that target on our chest. Believe me, after this victory it''s going to get real big."
The rankings came out an hour before Tuesday''s kickoff, which was unusually early because of Kansas'' late addition to the schedule.
Keep up the pace and the Illini, whose highest-ever ranking was ninth last year, could be in the Top 10 by next Tuesday.
"I think being ranked and all that, I don''t ever notice that," said Hurless, who broke a school record with her 13th career game-winning goal. "But to come off a weekend with two wins and win this on a Tuesday – a Tuesday game at 12 o''clock, with not a lot of fans here, skipping classes during the middle of the day – it gives us confidence."
It also gave them a perfect record heading into Big Ten play Friday at Michigan State (6-1) and Sunday at Michigan (4-2-1). During its first six matches, Illinois outscored the opposition 16-2 and tied last year''s team for the longest winning streak.
"It means a lot and it''s good for us because now we can come off such a big win and keep the momentum going and get some Big Ten wins," midfielder Paula Faherty said.
With three matches in five days, Faherty said the Illini treated their weekend tournament at Purdue and Tuesday''s match as a sort of mini-Big Ten tournament. That makes the Big Ten season the NCAA tournament, and Rayfield wants her team physically and psychologically prepared.
"The real test is we just won a big game and you''re on an emotional high, and now we''ve got to start our Big Ten season," Rayfield said. "Can we, in the next couple of days, celebrate this and enjoy this because it was a great win for the program, but then refocus and make sure that we''re consistent defensively and offensively when we step out against Michigan State?"
Hurless expects the Big Ten to be a grind, but the opposition can''t get much tougher than Kansas, which knocked off then seventh-ranked Clemson during the weekend. Hurless slammed home the rebound of an Ella Masar shot with 26:25 left in the first half for her 39th career score.
A defense anchored by Sarah Brown and Kelly Campbell, who played every minute of the past three matches, took over from there. Illinois held preseason All-Big 12 forward Caroline Smith and her teammates to four shots on goal and posted its fourth shutout.
"I know that all the work we''ve done defensively has paid off," Rayfield said. "Our backs just shut out a really good, attacking Kansas team that''s dynamic, can create a lot of chances, that has some crafty different personalities. So defensively, we now know we can handle that. The secret to the Big Ten competition is consistent defense. Today we showed we could do it. The Big Ten season, we''ll see if we can do it day in and day out."
Hurless said the rivalry with Michigan ranks at the top of the list, and the Illini posted wins against the Wolverines and Spartans last season. Tuesday''s matchup should prove a good tuneup considering the Big Ten has four more teams in the Top 25.
"Every Big Ten game is a battle and a dogfight because there''s so little difference between the top and the bottom," Rayfield said. "A goal in the middle of the season can make the difference between making the Big Ten tournament or not. The intensity is there because it''s the Big Ten, but this game was as intense as they get. Both teams wanted to win this game. There might not have been a conference title on the line, but both of these teams want to be in the Top 10."
You can reach Brian Dietz at (217) 443-8945 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.