Soccer knocks off defending champs
CHAMPAIGN — For a kite-flying enthusiast or a wind-farm owner, it could not have been a more ideal day.
For a soccer player, not so much.
Especially when the wind — clocked at a steady 36 mph with gusts up to 47 mph at the start of Sunday's match at Illinois Soccer Stadium — was blowing directly in your face,
"The wind was absolutely ridiculous," Illinois forward Niki Read said.
And these Illini know a thing or two about extreme blustery conditions, having played seven days earlier in a real howler during the Big Ten tournament final on a field hard by one of the Great Lakes.
"Never thought the wind would be stronger here than right off of Lake Michigan," Illinois coach Janet Rayfield said, "but today proved me wrong."
Once again, however, the Illini proved to Rayfield that they are one unflappable and adaptable bunch by pulling out a hard-earned 1-0 victory against Notre Dame in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
"We've been able to handle a lot of different things," the UI coach said, "and I think they went into this game going 'Whatever happens happens. However the wind's blowing, whatever side we get first — into the wind; against the wind — we'll just handle it.' "
By doing so, No. 16 Illinois (17-4-2) fended off the defending NCAA champion and advanced to a second-round meeting with No. 4 Oklahoma State on Friday at Stillwater, Okla.
In the process, the streaking Illini also became the winningest team in program history, eclipsing the previous single-season record of 16 victories. Illinois, which is 11-0-1 in its last 12 matches, hasn't lost since Sept. 25.
"This is really fun to be a part of," Read said.
The Illini junior assured that the fun would continue by scoring Sunday's lone goal. Less than five minutes into the second half, Read let fly with a straight-on shot from 30 yards out that soared over the reach of leaping Irish goalkeeper Maddie Fox and barely under the crossbar.
"It was a great shot," Illini defender Jenna Carosio said. "The goalie didn't have a chance. Just let it fly with the wind."
With that formidable wind at her back, Read figured a longish shot had a better-than-usual shot at paying off. When she struck the ball, however, confidence wasn't particularly high.
"To be honest, I thought it was going to be short and the goalie was going to save it," Read said.
It was the lone slipup by Fox, who otherwise kept Illinois at bay. The Notre Dame junior finished with seven saves, including five during the second half when Illini attackers had the wind advantage.
"We had several chances where I thought we could have put the game away," Rayfield said. "But this is the defending national champion, so they're not going to give up goals easily.
"The goal in a game like this is to finish more chances than they do, and we were able to do that today."
The Illini also were able to withstand Notre Dame's wind-aided attack in the first half. When the Irish (10-8-3) won the prematch coin flip, they had the option of taking first possession of the ball or picking the end of the field they would defend. Notre Dame coach Randy Waldrum opted for the latter, choosing to defend the south goal so the wind would be at his team's back in the first half.
But an Illini defense that entered with eight shutouts refused to let the Irish take advantage. Notre Dame launched seven shots in the first half, including three on goal, but was turned away each time by goalie Steph Panozzo and the UI defensive corps.
"Steph made a couple of awesome saves in the first half and we fought through having the wind in our face in the first 45 (minutes) well," Carosio said.
Said Rayfield: "You could kind of tell at the end of the first half there was a sense of urgency from Notre Dame, knowing with the wind at their back it was going to be their best chance to score."
As things turned out, it was. During the second half, with the wind in their faces, the Irish managed two shots — neither on goal.
Remarkably, Illinois held Notre Dame's top offensive threat without a shot for the entire match. Senior forward Melissa Henderson, a 2010 runner-up for national player of the year and an 18-goal scorer this season, never could shake Carosio & Co.
"We were very on our toes because she's got great speed and she can break out at any point," said Carosio, who had the primary defensive responsibility for Henderson.
In the end, it was another 1-0 victory — the sixth of the season — for an Illini team that seemingly thrives on such pressurized situations.
"There's a confidence with them when things get tight," Rayfield said.