CHAMPAIGN – As the NCAA tournament brackets were being revealed, junior Rebecca Patrick and the rest of the Illinois women's soccer team were getting nervous.
They knew they had a chance to make the Women's College Cup field, but the Illini had to wait until the final bracket. And the suspense was killing the group, which was gathered quietly at head coach Tricia Taliaferro's home.
"They would do 12 teams and then go to commercial," Patrick said. "We were dying to get the commercial over with. We're all sitting there, and we see our name, and we're crying and going nuts."
Sophomore Sue Hodson said she barely recognized the school's name when it appeared on the TV. The shock turned into celebration as Illinois reached the tournament for the first time in school history.
Illinois (13-7-0) will host Atlantic 10 tournament champion Xavier (14-6-1) – one of 21 automatic qualifiers – Wednesday night at Illini Field.
"It's a huge step for us as a program," Taliaferro said. "It was a team goal from the beginning. It's big to accomplish it, and we grew as a team the whole year."
After Friday's triple-overtime loss to eventual champion Penn State in the Big Ten tournament, Taliaferro said her team deserved a chance.
Two days later, the Illini were rewarded with their first NCAA berth.
"Most of us watched the Penn State-Michigan (championship) game today, and I couldn't sit still," Hodson said. "You don't want to end your season on a loss. We had a better chance than last year to make it, but I think we were trying to keep it low key just in case."
During an online chat Sunday night on the NCAA's Web site, NCAA Division I Women's Soccer Committee chairwoman Debbie Warren said toughness of schedule played a part in the at-large qualifiers.
Warren also said "geographics and the ability and availability to host" factored into determining first-round host sites.
"I think it was so exciting because we didn't think we'd get in," Patrick said. "We didn't want to end our season on that so quickly. We were itching for one more game."
That game will be against a hot Xavier squad, which is making its second NCAA trip in three years after beating regular season league champ Dayton 1-0 on Sunday in the tournament final.
The Musketeers started the season 1-6 with six shutout losses but are 13-0-1 since losing Sept. 20 to Dayton. But Illinois has plenty of motivation.
A victory would mean a possible rematch with seventh-seeded Penn State in the second round. And the Illini are 10-2 this season at home.
"Our fans are awesome," Hodson said. "We've got a lot of student fans coming out now. We're not going to lose at home, especially in our first NCAA tournament game."