CHAMPAIGN – It was part shock, part disappointment. As she walked off her home field after a 2-0 first-round NCAA tournament loss to Western Michigan last fall, Andrea Ridgeway felt a range of emotions.
She was stunned that her team, the best in Illinois soccer history, ended its season a week after winning the Big Ten tournament.
"It was hard to grasp because we were coming off all that momentum," Ridgeway said. "We expected to do better than we did. We thought we had the team. It surprised and shocked a lot of people. It''s something that sticks in our mind. People who were on the team last year, we remember it."
That loss should provide plenty of motivation heading into today''s 5 p.m. first-round match with Rice in College Station, Texas.
"For me it was, ''Don''t let it happen again,'' " junior Paula Faherty said. "That disappointment really hits you hard when you want something so bad. In an instant, it was taken away.
"I think it will drive us now that we''re into the tournament. I don''t think that drove us throughout the season. But it''s in the back of our minds and reminds us to take it one game at a time."
No. 19 Illinois (13-5-2) will face an Owls team that''s 14-4-3 and making its first NCAA appearance. Illinois'' seniors are 0-2 in first-round matches.
"I think the big thing that drives us seniors is we have to learn from past mistakes," Ridgeway said. "We really can''t look past the first round at all."
Although they have to travel to Texas and will play in a hostile environment, coach Janet Rayfield and many of the players believe that will help. Rayfield said her players thrive on the big stage, Christen Karniski said playing new teams in new places will be exciting and Ridgeway thinks a road match will be a good jolt to the system.
"Honestly, we will be a little more focused with it being on the road," Ridgeway said. "In the past, with it being at home, you kind of look at it just as another home game. You don''t see it as the NCAA tournament, prime time.
"We''ll be a little more focused, and we''ll realize this is the tournament. This is the game. This is it."
After a season of "wearing a target" on their backs, the Illini enter their regional site as an underdog with ninth-seeded and 10th-ranked Texas A&M the favorite.
"I think whenever you''re the underdog you feel you have something to prove," Karniski said. "And this team especially, when we feel like we have something to prove, we step up our game."
Illinois must get past a stingy Rice defense that has allowed 10 goals to get a shot at Texas A&M, which is led by freshman Ashlee Pistorius. Area soccer fans should remember Pistorius, a record-setting scorer from Normal U-High who was the Big 12''s Rookie of the Year.
"I think they''re going to be a solid team defensively," Rayfield said of Rice. "The big challenge for us is can we break down a solid defensive team? The seven goals we scored in the last two games (a 5-0 win against Northwestern and 3-2 loss to Penn State) should give us confidence."
Rayfield has a large group of family and friends making the three-hour drive from Dallas to College Station for the game. But with the Aggies'' football team at home this weekend, she knows the large crowds will have little orange and blue.
That''s fine with Faherty.
"We might be underdogs, but we like it that way anyway," Faherty said. "We''ve always played well as the underdog. People might overlook us. They might not expect much from us. But they''ll be surprised."
You can reach Brian Dietz at (217) 443-8945 or via e-mail at email@example.com.