CHAMPAIGN – They would have liked a better seeding at this week''s Big Ten tournament, but Tara Hurless and her Illinois soccer teammates don''t mind playing the underdog role in Columbus, Ohio.
The Illini (12-4-2) are the fourth seed heading into Thursday''s quarterfinal match with fifth-seeded Northwestern.
"I would much rather be the underdog than someone like Penn State, who is expected to win," Hurless said.
Hurless has some history on her side. The No. 1 team has been knocked off by the No. 8 seed the past two years.
The Illini (seeded second in 2004) took advantage of that last year, posting three straight shutouts en route to their first tournament title.
"If you look back at Big Ten tournaments, there''s a lot of upsets and a lot of different things," coach Janet Rayfield said. "Part of it is it''s a long regular season, and home and away can really impact things. The seeding can not necessarily be indicative of where teams are when the tournament rolls around. The difference between one and eight isn''t very far. The talent is tight, and any given day a team can win."
Take Northwestern, for example. The Wildcats (11-7-2) tied 20th-ranked Illinois 0-0 two weeks ago.
Offense has been sparse down the stretch – four goals in the last six matches, including a pair of double-overtime contests – but Hurless believes the Illini can rebound.
"We need to finish our opportunities and make sure we''re connecting with our midfielders and finish in the back of the net," said Hurless, the 2003 tournament MVP. "We had shots, but we weren''t converting on them."
Illinois, which started 7-0, finished 5-3-2 in the conference, losing at Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State. Hurless said the Illini fell short on some of their goals, but Rayfield believes the tough road schedule should strengthen her team.
"Are we satisfied? We don''t think so," Rayfield said. "We also realize it was a very good year. Playing on the road, the challenges we faced, all those experiences make us better prepared for this postseason play."
Illinois would seem like a safe bet to make its fourth NCAA tournament in five years. But Hurless and Rayfield would prefer to win the automatic bid that goes with the conference title.
"I feel like we''ve competed as one of the top programs in the country all year," Rayfield said. "With the committee, obviously, we''d like to not leave it up to anyone else''s decision. Do I feel like we''ve proven ourselves? Yes, but there are never any assurances. That''s how we have to play once we step on thefield."
BIG TEN TOURNAMENT
At Ohio State
Match 1 – Penn State (1) vs. Indiana (8), 9:30 a.m.
Match 2 – Illinois (4) vs. Northwestern (5), 12:30 p.m.
Match 3 – Ohio State (2) vs. Purdue (7), 3:30 p.m.
Match 4 – Michigan (3) vs. Wisconsin (6), 6:30 p.m.
Match 5 – Winner Match 1 vs. Winner Match 2, 3:30 p.m.
Match 6 – Winner Match 3 vs. Winner Match 4, 7 p.m.
Match 7 – Winner Match 5 vs. Winner Match 6, 1:30 p.m.
You can reach Brian Dietz at (217) 443-8945 or via e-mail at email@example.com.