Women's Soccer
2012 Illinois Soccer Season Preview

Goalkeeper Steph Panozzo embarks on her senior year after an impressive 2011 where she recorded 75 saves and 8 shutouts.
Goalkeeper Steph Panozzo embarks on her senior year after an impressive 2011 where she recorded 75 saves and 8 shutouts.

Aug. 9, 2012

2012 Illinois Soccer Season Preview


The 2011 season was not a blip on the radar for head coach Janet Rayfield and the rest of her Fighting Illini squad but a model of success to build upon. The reigning Big Ten Tournament champions have been ranked No. 19 by the National Soccer Coaches Association of America (NSCAA), as they seek their ninth NCAA Tournament appearance in Rayfield's 11th year at the helm.

The Orange and Blue return six of their eleven starters, including several veteran attacking players who ignited the Illini offense to score 53 goals in 2011. Coach Rayfield will look to replace the midfield and defensive prowess of starters Jackie Guerra, Julie Ewing, second-team All-Big Ten midfielder Marissa Mykines and Big Ten Defender of the Year Jenna Carosio, all of whom graduated in the spring. However, seven newcomers join the Illini fold this fall and look to infuse their own unique talents and styles into Rayfield's offensive and defensive schemes. 

The Forwards

Illinois returns its dynamic duo of starting forwards in senior Shayla Mutz and junior Megan Pawloski. Mutz, who recorded a new season-best 11 points, started in all 24 games, seeing an average of 74 minutes per contest. Mutz also tallied the game-winner in overtime at Louisville and also assisted Pawloski's game-winner against Wisconsin. Megan registered her best season to date last year, tallying 14 points on six goals and two assists. Furthermore, Pawloski achieved one multi-goal performance with two goals in the Illini's 5-1 win over Oregon. Together, the pair struck 57 total shots, including 24 on goal.

Two more seniors providing experience and leadership up top are Nicole Denenberg and Marissa Holden. Denenberg started in seven of the 23 matches she played and notched the big assist on the game-winning goal over #11 Penn State to win the Big Ten Tournament title. Holden played a career best 19 games on the season, recording three assists and a shots on goal percentage of .600.

"Our veterans must utilize the knowledge and experience that the years have provided and lead on the field both verbally and with great examples of confidence, composure and competitiveness," coach Rayfield said. "Many of the players in this group are versatile and can play multiple positions that will allow us to put an effective lineup on the field."

The Illini lose one and gain one in youth in the forward position. Redshirt sophomore Jannelle Flaws, who was named to the Big Ten All-Freshmen team in 2011, had surgery in the spring and won't be playing this fall. Flaws competed in 22 contests while achieving nine points on three goals and three assists. However, freshman Nicole Breece will look to add depth and vie for some minutes up top.

The Midfield

Despite the loss of three senior starters, the Illini look poised to once again be strong in the middle of the field. The returns of Big Ten midfielder of the year Vanessa DiBernardo and senior Niki Read will lead a group of athletic young talents, all eager to contribute for the Illini. 

DiBernardo carried over the success she had as a freshman and then some, as she led the team with 39 points, 17 goals, 102 shots and 55 shots on goal. The NSCAA second-team All-American finished among the top 25 nationally in five offensive categories, including her eight game-winning goals that ranked third in the NCAA and the most in Illini history. Not only does DiBernardo's 17 goals and 39 points rank as the second highest totals in an individual year for the Orange and Blue, but she also has already accumulated 66 career points, the fifth most for an individual Illini ever.

Niki Read led last year's squad with seven assists, on her way to totaling the third most points on the team with 17. The senior produced a career day against Ball State, notching three goals and an assist, becoming the fifth Illini ever to produce seven or more points in a single game. Read also sent the Illini into the second round of the NCAA Tournament after scoring the game winning goal over the defending national champions from Notre Dame in the first round. 

Sophomores Allie Osoba and Noelle Leary along with freshman Anastasia Medellin will join the crafty veterans in the midfield this year. Osoba played in in six competitions last year and tallied her first collegiate goal against Toledo, while Leary and Medellin seek their first minutes on the pitch.

"This team will be a blend of youth and experience," Rayfield said. "We will have to balance the youth on the field and put them in the right positions with the right responsibilities in order for them to use their strengths and contribute immediately to the success of this team."

The Defense

A duo of starters return to the defense this season in junior Kassidy Brown and redshirt junior Christina Farrell. The twosome along with now graduate Jenna Carosio helped spearhead the record-setting mark of 12 consecutive games without suffering a defeat in 2011.

Kassidy Brown started in 21 contests, while subbing into three additional games, filling in as an outside back. Brown also recorded her first multipoint game when she notched a pair of assists against Michigan. Christina Farrell opened the season starting against Gonzaga, Toledo, Ball State and Louisville before missing 11 games due to injury. Farrell ultimately returned and played 13 total games on the year, including action in the Big Ten and NCAA Tournaments. 

Senior Kristin Gierman, who saw time last season in Illinois victories over Ball State, Oregon and Indiana, will compete for minutes in the backfield. She will be joined by many young talents such as redshirt freshmen Aliina Weykamp, who played two games last year before suffering a season ending injury, and University of Miami transfer Shannon Roche. In addition, freshmen Reagan Robishaw, Amy Feher, Taylore Peterson and Tailor Smith all join the ranks this fall and look to make an immediate impact.

"Carosio had a great season, but she was new to our defensive line last year as well," Rayfield said. "Kassidy and Christina have seen some of the best attacking teams and strikers in the country. Freshmen Taylor Peterson, Tailor Smith, Amy Feher and Reagan Robishaw, redshirt freshman Aliina Weykamp, sophomore Noelle Leary and senior Kristen Gierman could all potentially play in the backline."

The Goalkeepers

Last year, Steph Panozzo stepped into the starting goalkeeper role for the Illini and produced a sensational season. The senior played the seventh most minutes in the NCAA (2,224) and picked up a carer-best 75 saves along the way. In addition, Panozzo recorded five consecutive shutouts for just the third time in program history and first since 2007. Panozzo ranked third in the conference with her 0.79 goals against average in Big Ten play, and was awarded Big Ten All-Tournament MVP after knocking off No. 11 Penn State, 2-1, in overtime in the championship final.

"Last year, Steph grew daily as our starting goalkeeper and with the help of Coach Alcia, really came to understand her own strengths and weaknesses," Rayfield said. "With that knowledge, she was able to make great decisions in the goal, communicate and organize her defense effectively and help lead this team to a great defensive season."

Junior Lauren Parkin and sophomore Lizzi Sanscrainte are prepared to fill in when called upon. Sanscrainte made her first collegiate appearance at Northwestern in 2011, while Parkin awaits to bring her high school and club success to the team.

The Schedule

Coach Rayfield has assembled one of the most arduous schedules to date, challenging this Illini squad right away. The Orange and Blue are set to compete against four teams in the top 25 and six total squads that received votes in the NSCAA pre-season poll. Illinois will battle No. 3 Wake Forest, No. 6 UCLA, No. 9 Penn State, No. 22 Virginia Tech, and Ohio State and Wisconsin-Milwaukee who both received votes but did not appear in the top 25. 

Illinois could be without Rayfield and midfielder Vanessa DiBernardo until Big Ten play starts on Sept. 16. The duo will be traveling to Japan with the U.S. U-20 Women's National team for the U-20 World Cup, starting Aug. 19. The quarterfinal knockout stage begins August 30 with the World Championship final taking place Sept. 8 in Tokyo. Assistant Jeff Freeman will serve as the interim head coach in Rayfield's absence.

Meanwhile, the Fighting Illini open up their 2012 campaign with exhibition bouts at Cincinnati on Aug. 10 and at home against Kentucky on Aug. 12. Then the official season kicks off with the Illini hosting the 2011 MAC Tournament runner-up Western Michigan, before traveling to the MVC Tournament title winner in Illinois State on Aug. 19.

Next, the Orange and Blue travel to California to take on UC Santa Barbara on Aug. 24. The Illini then play four consecutive games against opponents who received votes in the pre-season top-25 poll. First, Illinois concludes its three game road trip and August portion of its schedule with Pac-12 favorite No. 6 UCLA on Aug. 26. Then, the Illini return home to battle Wisconsin-Milwaukee on Sept. 1. Finally, the Illni travel to Winston-Salem, N.C., to clash with No. 22 Virginia Tech and 2011 Final Four participant No. 3 Wake Forest in the Wake Forest Invitational. Illinois takes on the Hokies on Sept. 7 before meeting with the Demon-Deacons on Sept. 9.

"It is a cliche that all coaches use, 'to be the best you have to play the best,'" Rayfield said. "The non-conference schedule will stretch this team and force us to defend hard, to play smart, to attack with relentless pressure and to to finish with composure and confidence. This schedule will bring out the best in this team, and I am really excited to watch that take place."

Illinois opens up Big Ten play with three straight games inside the Illinois Soccer Stadium. To date, coach Rayfield has compiled an .812 winning percentage with games played in Champaign. The Illini, who finished second last season with an 8-2-1 record, begin conference play with Iowa on Sept. 16. Then Illinois faces back-to-back Sweet 16 participants in Ohio State on Sept. 21 and No. 9 Penn State on Sept. 23. The Orange and Blue wrap up September with two road contests at Indiana on the 28th and Purdue on the 30th. 

The Illini begin October in Champaign on Oct. 4 vs. Michigan State before hitting the road once more for back-to-back away games at Minnesota on Oct. 12 and Wisconsin on Oct. 14. The Illini then welcome in-state rival Northwestern on Oct. 18 and clash with Nebraska on Oct. 21 in their final home game. Illinois concludes regular-season play at Michigan on Oct. 27.

"There are so many factors that make home field advantage a reality in Big Ten soccer, such as variations in playing surface and field size, recovery and travel issues and of course the great Illini support," Rayfield said. "For us, there is also an incredible sense of pride in our home field and in carrying on a tradition of success here in Champaign. However, last season, where tournament slots were decided on the last day of play, it showed that every game in the Big Ten is significant, so our true goal is to focus on every game whether it is at home or on the road and fight to the end for every point."

The 2012 edition of the Big Ten Tournament will be hosted in Bloomington, Ind., at Indiana University from Oct. 31 through Nov. 4. The top eight regular-season finishers will earn seeding in the tournament. The NCAA College Cup will occur at the University of San Diego's Torero Stadium from Nov. 30 through Dec. 2.