Senior Chichi Nweke will look to lead the Illini attack as the team's top returning scorer.
Aug. 10, 2009
With three NCAA Sweet 16 appearances in the last five seasons, expectations are annually high for Illinois soccer and 2009 is no different. Eight starters and a core group of talent return from the 2008 squad that advanced to the NCAA Sweet 16, marking the sixth consecutive Fighting Illini appearance in the NCAA Tournament. Head coach Janet Rayfield will look to extend it to seven straight NCAA appearances for Illinois as she leads a program that is already established as one of the nation's best.
The six-member senior class of Courtney Bell, Brittany Garrett, Alexandra Kapicka, Chichi Nweke, Christina Sahly and Jackie Santacaterina ranked ninth in the nation when they signed their letters of intent in 2006, and has lived up to expectations by contributing to plenty of wins and helping the Illini to two NCAA Sweet 16 appearances. Their leadership and experience will be crucial to the team's success in 2009. Tri-captains Bell, Santacaterina and junior Danielle Kot are especially experienced, as the three logged over 5,100 minutes last season and will be the heart and backbone of the Illini down the center of the field.
Illinois will look to increase its offensive output this season, and leading the charge will be Nweke, who returns for her third year as a starter as a dangerous and dynamic scorer. Juniors Jordan Hilbrands and Christina Sahly will complement and take some of the attention away from Nweke with the speed and finishing power they provide.
The Orange and Blue midfield may be the most talented and experienced in the Big Ten, with Santacaterina and Bell returning for their fourth seasons and junior Cory Steigerwald back for her second year as a starter. Kot will again anchor the Illini defense in the middle, flanked on one side by Garrett who started every game last year at outside back. With the graduation of Olympian and four-year starter Emily Zurrer and starting center back Jamie Alvis, the Illini have two spots to fill on the back line. Juniors Krystin Miller and converted forward Laura Knutson along with sophomores Caitlin Dombart and Julie Ewing look to be in line to compete for those spots. Kapicka had an outstanding season in goal last year in her firstseason as the starter and also returns for her senior campaign.
Who's Back: Nweke (Virginia Beach, Va./Princess Anne) is the undisputed leader of the attack, with a career total of 49 points (17 goals and 15 assists) that ranks eighth all-time in Illinois history. Nweke will aim to continue her movement up the record books in her final season after leading the Illini with 18 points (seven goals, four assists) in 2008, including four game-winners. One of the quickest players on the team, Hilbrands (Bexley, Ohio/Columbus School for Girls) also brings experience up top after starting 14 matches last season and scoring two game-winning goals. Redshirt junior Sahly (Naperville, Ill./Central) has been limited in her years with the Illini due to injuries but is a candidate to have a breakout season up top after a great spring season in the Illini attack.
Who's Not: Jessica Levitt started all 23 games last season, scoring two goals with one assist. Reserve Charlotte Cooke also graduated after being an important spark off the bench during her time with the Orange and Blue.
Who's New: Shayla Mutz (Homer Glen, Ill./Lockport Township) and Niki Read (Lake Orion, Mich./Lake Orion) both have youth national team experience and could contribute immediately to the Illini attack. Three other Illini freshmen have seen time at forward during their youth careers. Marissa Holden (Murphy, Texas/Plano East) had countless successes on the club level as a forward for the Dallas Texans, Nicole Denenberg (Chicago, Ill./St. Ignatius College Prep) set school records as a forward and Katrina Fehrenbacher (Dunlap, Ill./Dunlap) could also see time up front this season.
Who's Back: Illinois returns its three starting midfielders from last season in seniors Santacaterina (Geneva, Ill./Geneva) and Bell (Bainbridge Island, Wash.), along with Steigerwald (Long Grove, Ill./Stevenson). Santacaterina brings the most experience in entering her fourth year as a starter and is one of the best in the conference as a two-time All-Big Ten performer. Bell has played in 67 games for the Orange and Blue as a constant presence in the midfield and is poised to have her best season yet. Steigerwald stepped up last season to start half of Illinois' matches, and has shown consistent development during her first two seasons. Sophomore Marissa Mykines (Spokane, Wash/Mead) contributed five points to the Illini attack as a true freshman, but will likely see more time in the midfield in 2009. Also returning and adding depth in the midfield are sophomores Jenna Carosio (Novi, Mich./Novi) and Jackie Guerra (Plano, Texas/Plano).
Who's Not: Marti Desjarlais is the only contributor who graduated from the midfield, but the loss is significant as she was a defensive presence who played in 86 career games.
Who's New: Fehrenbacher and Denenberg could see time in the midfield as well.
Who's Back: Kot (Brookfield, Wis./Central) will anchor this season's Illini defense after remarkably playing every minute in the backfield last season. A second-team All-Big Ten performer, Kot helped the Illini to nine shutouts last season and is on her way to becoming one of Illinois' all-time great center backs. Garrett (Lake Zurich, Ill./Lake Zurich) started all 23 games in the backfield last season, and will likely resume her position at outside back. Other returnees aiming for playing time on defense include juniors Krystin Miller (Berkey, Ohio/St. Ursula Academy) and converted forward Laura Knutson (Crystal Lake, Ill./South) and sophomores Julie Ewing (Batavia, Ill./Batavia) and Caitlin Dombart (West Chester, Ohio/Lakota West).
Who's Not: There will be a major hole to fill in the back with the graduation of Emily Zurrer, who left Illinois as a three-time All-American, four-year starter and the most decorated player in school history. Jamie Alvis also is gone after starting 21 games at center back in 2008, leaving two important openings on the Illini backline.
Who's New: Kristen Gierman (Arlington Heights, Ill./Hersey) will join the Illini after a standout high school career and aim for playing time in the backfield, and Fehrenbacher and Holden could see positional changes during their freshmen years as possible back line options.
Who's Back: Alexandra Kapicka (Arlington Heights, Ill./Ill. Math and Science Academy) returns after playing every minute of every match as a junior in 2009. Kapicka was outstanding last season, with nine shutouts and a goals-against average of 0.80 that ranked as the second-best in school history.
Who's Not: No one graduated from the goalkeeper position.
Who's New: Steph Panozzo (Maple Ridge, B.C./Maple Ridge Secondary) joined the Illini this spring after spending last year competing with the U-20 Canadian National Team at the CONCACAF Championships and FIFA U-20 Women's World Cup. Katelyn Hoffman (Collinsville, Ill./Collinsville) also joins the goalkeeper corps after a successful career at the high school and club levels.
Illinois will be challenged for the duration of the season with one of the most difficult schedules in recent memory. Ten of the Illini's 19 opponents advanced to the 2008 NCAA Tournament, with three going to the Round of 16 or further. The Orange and Blue will aim to continue their streak of dominating play at the Illinois Soccer Stadium, following the 2008 campaign where the Illini were 8-1-0 at home and posted an incredible seven shutouts.
After a home match against Illinois State to open the season, the Illini will head to Denver for the DU Invitational, playing a pair of 2008 NCAA qualifiers in Colorado and Denver. Next up is the Illini Challenge Cup and an even more challenging weekend, highlighted by a match-up with perennial power UCLA as well as UC-Santa Barbara. The Orange and Blue then head west for the Nike Portland Invitational, playing their third consecutive tournament with matches against 2008 NCAA Elite Eight participant Portland as well as Washington, which advanced to the NCAA Second Round. A pair of home games against Loyola-Chicago and Milwaukee close out the non-conference schedule, ensuring the Illini will be prepared for the grueling Big Ten slate.
The conference schedule opens at home with Minnesota for SoccerFest weekend on the Big Ten Network, followed by a road trip to Purdue and Indiana. Illinois next hosts Wisconsin, plays at Iowa and returns home to host Ohio State for a rare Thursday night match. A Big Ten Network televised showdown at Penn State is next on the docket, for a match-up that could feature two of the top teams in the Big Ten. The Illini's final home weekend features games against Michigan State (televised live on the Big Ten Network) and Michigan, with the regular season closing at Northwestern.