UI keeper rebounds in style
CHAMPAIGN — A short memory can be an absolute necessity for a goalkeeper.
In Illinois’ first-round NCAA tournament opener, Illini freshman Claire Wheatley displayed that indispensable quality one match after giving up five goals against Indiana at the Big Ten tournament and getting pulled from the match with almost 15 minutes remaining.
Illinois’ last line of defense made a career-high 11 saves in regulation against Washington State and two more during the shootout in an Illini victory.
“An amazing rebound from what I think everyone would agree was not a great performance in the Big Ten tournament,” UI coach Janet Rayfield said. “She had probably the game of her life in Pullman.”
Not all the saves were pretty or clean. Of course, the field conditions — it snowed nearly an inch overnight ahead of Illinois’ opener — and what that did to the ball had something to do with it.
“Between the mud and the wet, she certainly made every save interesting,” Rayfield said. “But as she said in her press conference, it was just about getting her body behind the ball and making sure it didn’t end up in the back of the net.”
Wheatley certainly is no stranger to high-stakes matches. The Plano, Texas, native was in goal for two Class 5A state championship teams in high school.
Her résumé includes stopping shots for the U.S. U17 Women’s National Team.
Saturday was her baptism in the NCAA tournament pressure-cooker.
How she performed, particularly given the field conditions, spoke volumes to her coach.
“For a freshman ... after having not her best performance her last outing, you really have to give some credit to the mental toughness that she showed on that day,” Rayfield said.
That’s one memory Wheatley should hang onto in her second NCAA tournament match and all others to follow.