Big Ten tourney storylines
News-Gazette staff writer JEFF HUTH offers three storylines on the Big Ten women’s soccer tournament in Champaign.
1. Change of plans
Ominous might be too strong a word, but the weather forecast for today is not good. It calls for a 100 percent chance of rain during the day, falling to 20 percent by early evening. With that in mind, the Big Ten announced Tuesday evening a change of schedule and venue for today’s opening round of quarterfinal matches. Instead of playing at Illinois Soccer Stadium, two sessions of simultaneous matches will be held at UI Campus Recreation’s two lighted soccer fields — commonly known as the Turf Fields because of their artificial surfaces — at Stadium Drive and First Street in Champaign. The first session starts at 1:30 p.m., followed by two more matches at 4:30 p.m. The Illinois-Indiana match is scheduled for the latter session. Free parking will be available in the Northwest quadrant lot of State Farm Center. Tickets can be purchased on game day at the ticket mobile near the main entrance on Stadium Drive. The remainder of the tournament will be played as originally scheduled at Illinois Soccer Stadium. Moving today’s matches from the stadium’s one grass field to the twin turf fields will allow the tournament to remain on its original Wednesday-Friday-Sunday schedule. The alternative would have been to risk a washout today and reschedule the quarterfinals for Thursday, which would require the eventual finalists to play three matches in four days. “That’s certainly not the best for the athletes,” said Illini coach Janet Rayfield, who during a news conference Monday recalled a time last decade when the tournament was compressed into four days. “And the number of players that got injured in that Sunday (title) game and the fatigue you went into the NCAA tournament with was a little hefty.” Rayfield also indicated she would prefer not to play matches on artificial turf, “but it’s probably better than playing in a mud pit where you’re slipping and sliding and falling, and you can’t really play the game.”
2. DiBernardo update
Vanessa DiBernardo played 12 minutes in the Illini’s final regular season match last Thursday. Rayfield is hoping the two-time All-American can play considerably more this week. DiBernardo suffered a sprained left knee Sept. 27 against Iowa, then missed the next seven matches. For all intents and purposes, however, it really was the next eight. Although the senior midfielder was in the starting lineup for the Illini’s Senior Day match Oct. 27, she left the field for good after logging three minutes. In the Illini’s next match, against the Gophers, the three-time All-Big Ten first-teamer was able to stretch out her playing time. “It’s getting better day by day,” said DiBernardo, who practices and plays with a brace on the knee. “I’m able to do anything in practice, and I’m just (going to be) ready whenever I can be out on the field.” Rayfield indicated that DiBernardo’s playing time this week will be closely monitored, not only because she’s returning from injury but because Illinois could play as many as three times in a five-day span and wants the three-time All-Big Ten first-teamer to be available for each match, if possible. “I think we’ll still manage the minutes,” Rayfield said. “And I think that will be game to game and how she’s feeling and how fit she really is. We probably won’t know that till we play her some extended minutes.” DiBernardo conceded that she felt a bit achy following the Minnesota match, but, more important, discovered that her knee had fared well. “Maybe a little (body) sore ‘cause game fitness is a little different than any other kind of fitness,” she said. “But my knee feels good. Nothing worse than it was before (the match).”
3. We meet again
When the Illini traveled to Indiana on Oct. 6, not only was DiBernardo sidelined but Rayfield’s team also was without starting defender Casey Conine and top reserve midfielder Reagan Robishaw due to injuries. Illinois, which lost to Indiana 3-2 that day, will have all three back for today’s rematch. Rayfield described the Hoosiers as an athletic team whose veterans no doubt will be fired up for the program’s first Big Ten tournament appearance since 2007. The UI coach expects Indiana to pressure her team’s defense as it did last month. The Hoosiers rank second in the Big Ten in shots per match and sixth in goals per match. “They get numbers forward, they get numbers behind the ball,” Rayfield said. “It’s just a really, really hardworking team with a special player in the middle who can make them run.” That player is Lisa Nouanesengsy, a senior midfielder whose 5-foot-2 stature belies her lofty impact on the game. “We certainly have to stop their spoke in the wheel,” Rayfield said of Nouanesengsy, “but also have to be really cognizant that they have a lot of really dangerous weapons around that spoke.”