Soccer team has big cleats to fill
CHAMPAIGN — The question marks for the Illinois soccer defense are there, but dwindling. Plenty of returning starters, including goalkeeper Claire Wheatley, and an offseason full of shoring up that back line have the Illini moving in the right direction.
Up top, Illinois has about as much of a sure thing as there can be with redshirt senior forward Jannelle Flaws — one of the two top returning scorers in the nation.
Tying it all together, though? That’s where the questions arise.
Illinois brings back center defensive midfielder Taylore Peterson with two seasons of starting experience to anchor the group — although she suffered a leg injury Tuesday in practice. The rest of the midfield will be a little more fluid early in the season, but for good reason: The Illini have to replace Vanessa DiBernardo, a two-time All-American and three-time All-Big Ten first-team selection. Considered one of the country’s top collegiate midfielders, DiBernardo was called up to the U.S. Women’s National Team for a September 2013 friendly against Mexico and was drafted fourth by the Chicago Red Stars in the 2014 NWSL College Draft.
“I think the secret is going to be that no one person tries to become Vanessa,” Illinois coach Janet Rayfield said. “But we certainly have to replace the role that Vanessa provided for us. She was an attacking connector. She glued the pieces of the puzzle together.
“It will take several of us, I think, to have the creative aspect of that, the work rate that she had and the attacking threat that she had. But you have players that were training underneath her and certainly got some experience last year.”
DiBernardo missed seven matches last fall with an injury and another with her USWNT call-up. That gave the Illini a sneak peek at what life was like without their top midfielder and gave younger players an opportunity to show they could fill that void when the time came this fall.
“We had to take the positive from her absence and that the positive might not pay off until months or years down the road,” Rayfield said. “These are the months down the road that we’re hoping those pay off. Players like Allison Stucky, Reagan Robishaw — those players have been waiting to show not that they can be Vanessa but that they can do for this program things that Vanessa used to do.”
Stucky played in 13 matches last fall and got four starts as a true freshman. She said she learned some tips and tricks playing as sort of a DiBernardo understudy.
“It was awesome playing under Vanessa and seeing how she worked in the midfield,” Stucky said. “A lot of what she taught me was just from her doing — not even from her talking to me — but watching her on the field at practice or during a game. I think learning from just watching someone can be a lot more beneficial than someone just telling you what to do.”
While replacing DiBernardo’s production — 43 goals and 22 assists in her four-year career — will be important, the Illini also will need someone to fill the leadership void, too. That’s where Robishaw might step in. Robishaw said she considers herself a positive player and is willing to fill whatever role the Illini coaching staff sees for her.
“The coaches will let me know if they need one thing out of me for one game,” Robishaw said. “I like to think I can figure that out and help them on the field and off — whether that’s cheering or doing extra work with another player.
“Janet always says you have to be ready for any opportunity that comes to you, so you’re always doing extra things, doing extra fitness. It may be watching film. I think Vanessa’s (missed time last year) did teach a lot of us that when your time comes you have to be ready to take it.”
As many different looks as the Illini midfield might take, there should be one constant. Peterson has a firm grasp on the defensive center mid spot.
Rayfield called her the “center of the spoke that this team revolves around.” The junior from Portage, Mich., has played in 44 of 46 possible matches in her two seasons and started 41 of them. Peterson’s name won’t show up next to big stats — she has three goals and two assists in two seasons — but Rayfield considers her “the backbone” of the team.
“Taylore Peterson is one of the best in the country in just doing the work that no one sees,” Rayfield said. “That you don’t really put on the stat sheet anywhere except for probably some of the stats we keep in terms of balls won and passes connected and being involved in just about every goal that we create.”
Stucky was quick to point out Peterson’s importance to the Illini.
“A lot of the stuff she does goes so unnoticed, but as a player on the field she is so helpful,” Stucky said. “She’s our key back there. Without her, nothing would work.”
In the middle
Taylore Peterson’s contributions on the soccer field, vast as they are for the Illini, are hard to quantify. Although now that she was among the Big Ten’s preseason players to watch, maybe her recognition is coming. Here’s a look at five more midfielders Big Ten teams will rely on this fall:
Lauren Berman, So., Maryland
The former Top 25 prospect (No. 21 in the ESPNHS Top 150 out of Canton, Mass.) shouldn’t have much trouble switching to the Big Ten after totaling three goals and five assists last fall in the ACC.
Ellyn Gruber, Sr., Ohio State
The two-year starter had a breakout year last fall with three goals and a team-leading seven assists. Gruber’s connection with sophomore forward Nichelle Prince (she assisted on four of Prince’s 13 goals last year) bodes well for this season, too.
Rose Lavelle, So., Wisconsin
Pretty straightforward for last year’s Big Ten Freshman of the Year. She scored six goals (second on the team) and assisted on seven more for the Badgers and then had an even better start to 2014. Lavelle earned the Golden Ball as the top player at the CONCACAF U-20 Championship and has been one of the top players on the U.S. Women’s U-20 World Cup team.
Madisson Lewis, So., Michigan
A unanimous All-Big Ten Freshman Team selection last year, Lewis came through in big moments last year, helping lead the Wolverines to the Elite Eight. More impressive than her six goals and nine assists as a freshman is that five of her goals were match-winners.
Kinley McNicoll, Jr., Wisconsin
Tough to give the Badgers two spots on this list, but even tougher to leave out one of the league’s best distributors. McNicoll led Wisconsin in assists the past two seasons and topped the Big Ten rankings in assists and assists per match last fall.