Women's Soccer
2014 Illinois Soccer Season Preview

Aug. 19, 2014

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CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - Coming off its fourth NCAA Sweet Sixteen appearance in school history, the Illinois women's soccer team is primed for another NCAA Tournament run in 2014 with the majority of its starting lineup back on the field. Illini head coach Janet Rayfield, who enters her 13th season at the helm, returns seven starters and welcomes 10 newcomers to the Orange and Blue.

"There is enough experience sprinkled amongst the inexperience to keep our group stable," Rayfield said. "We lost a significant senior class, but have enough playing experience on the field to maintain our system. Our newcomers came in with an understanding of the expectations. They have jumped right in and their learning curve has been pretty quick."

After reaching the third round of the NCAA Tournament and finishing last season ranked No. 25 in the NSCAA Coaches Poll, Illinois is receiving votes in the 2014 preseason poll. The Illini bring back 67 percent (36 of 54 goals) of their scoring from a year ago, which ranked as the third-most goals scored in program history. The Orange and Blue had 14 different players find the net during the 2013 season and nine of those players are back on the roster.

Headlining Illinois' returning goal scorers is senior Jannelle Flaws, the reigning Big Ten Forward of the Year who led the nation in goals in 2013. Flaws was selected to the Missouri Athletic Club (MAC) Hermann Trophy watch list for the 2014 season, which is the most prestigious individual award in NCAA soccer, and was named a Big Ten Preseason Player to Watch.

Flaws was an offensive force throughout the 2013 season, scoring 23 goals to lead the nation along with St. John's Rachel Daly. Her 23 goals also eclipsed the previous school record of 18 by Emily Brown in 1999. Flaws was a first-team All-Big Ten and All-Great Lakes Region selection along with being chosen as the University of Illinois Dike Eddleman Female Athlete of the Year.

The Glenview, Illinois, native found the net in 15 of 23 games and had six multi-goal games, including hat tricks versus Illinois State and Northwestern. She also notched five game-winning goals, none bigger than her golden goal against Portland in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, sending Illinois to its first Sweet 16 since 2008.

"Jannelle is a great stable foundation to lead our young offense," Rayfield said. "She will set the tone for our attack. We know Jannelle will receive more attention from opponents based on her success, so we will need to share the goal scoring more this year. The strength of our team will be our mobility. Our attacking six will be interchangeable but Jannelle will lead that group."

Illinois' other true forward is freshman Kara Marbury, while the group up front also includes players who could also see time in the midfield in Nicole Breece, Megan Green and Katherine Ratz. Freshman Abby Elinsky, the 2013-14 Gatorade Ohio Girls Soccer Player of the Year, also is an attacking option but is expected to see time on Illinois' back line.

This year's midfield will be without all-time great Vanessa DiBernardo for the first time in four years, but she will still remain around the program. DiBernardo will serve as a student assistant coach during the 2014 season while she completes her undergraduate degree at the University of Illinois. The Naperville, Illinois, native finished her collegiate playing career in 2013 as one of the most decorated Illinois soccer players in school history and became the highest drafted player in program history when she was selected fourth overall by the Chicago Red Stars in the NWSL Draft.

"With the attributes Vanessa had, there is not a single player that is going to be able to encompass all of her skills," Rayfield said. "Vanessa was a leader in the midfield, a connector in how she set up her teammates, and also had an attacking role. We will have multiple players share the responsibilities in those three areas. We have players that can do something that Vanessa did and something different that they do."

Replacing DiBernardo by committee will be the task for several players at the position. Junior Taylore Peterson, who has three goals in 41 career starts, will be a veteran leader for the group. The Portage, Michigan, native has played over 3,600 minutes in her first two seasons at Illinois and was tabbed a Big Ten Preseason Player to Watch heading into 2014.

"Taylore has great experience and reads the game extremely well," Rayfield said. "She will supply some of the leadership Vanessa provided in the midfield, but more on the defensive side than the attacking side."

Two-year starter Nicole Breece is one of the most experienced Illini on the roster entering her junior campaign. The St. Louis, Missouri, native owns six goals and six assists in 43 career games, including 40 starts with 3,000-plus minutes.

"Nicole can play an attacking role and have a defensive midfield presence," Rayfield said.

Another upperclassmen expected to step up this season is junior Reagan Robishaw. The Painesville, Ohio, native has come off the bench during her first two seasons, but will compete for a starting role this year. She has scored two goals and has two assists in 26 career games.

"Reagan has trained extremely well and has some of the attacking creativity that Vanessa had," Rayfield said. "She has improved her fitness and can handle some of the work rate."

Sophomores Casey Conine and Allison Stucky will both be in the mix for a starting spot during their second season. Conine started 19 games as a freshman and tied for fourth on the team with 11 points (3 goals, 5 assists). Stucky made four starts and played in 13 games during her freshman year. Both will add depth to the midfield and are expected to see increased playing time.

Other midfielders who will compete for playing time include senior Noelle Leary, junior Anastasia Medellin, sophomores Alia Abu-Douleh, Jenna Miller, Tailor Smith and Summer Schafer and freshmen Emily Osoba, Katherine Ratz and Olivia Schmitt.

Illinois' final preseason Big Ten Player to Watch, redshirt-junior Aliina Weykamp, will lead a back line that has been together since the spring. Junior Amy Feher, sophomore Hope D'Addario and freshman Abby Elinsky will provide a stable foundation for the Illini defense.

"Our goal this year is to make a significant difference in the number of goals we give up and to improve defensively," Rayfield said. "We have a group that has trained together since the spring, so even though we have a young team, the core of our defense has been together for some time."

Weykamp started all 23 games on defense in 2013 and totaled over 1,900 minutes, giving her over 3,600 minutes in 48 career games. Feher registered four assists and scored a goal while playing in all 23 games and starting 21 times last season. D'Addario, who played in 10 games and made three starts as a freshman, is back healthy after missing the final 13 games in 2013 due to a broken collarbone.

Elinksy was an NSCAA All-American following a stellar senior season in which she won the first-ever state championship at Rocky River High School. She also led the Cleveland United Soccer Club to the U.S. youth soccer national championship, earning Top 11 honors.

Freshman Sarah Warren, who also is a standout speed skater, is another newcomer who could contribute after being a 2014 IHSSCA soccer all-state selection in her first and only season playing high school soccer. Freshman Brista Phillips also could see time on the back line.

Illinois features a new goalkeeper coach with Katie Hultin in her first year on staff. Hultin joins the Orange and Blue following a five-year stint with the Seattle University women's soccer team. Her main duties as goalkeeper coach include mentoring and training Illinois' goalkeepers.

"Coach Hultin has recent playing experience, so the players can relate to her," Rayfield said. "She has a great teaching style and adjusts it to the players. She has the entire training group pushing each other, which will prepare whoever takes on that starting spot."

Sophomore Claire Wheatley played in all 23 games last season, starting 22 times during her freshman year. She jumped right into the mix and improved as the season went on, posting her first career shutout with a career-high 11 saves and two stops in penalty kicks during Illinois' first round NCAA Tournament game at Washington State. The Plano, Texas, native made 101 saves in her debut season but allowed 50 goals for a .669 save percentage.

"Claire has trained hard with coach Hultin since the spring and looks to take another step this year," Rayfield said.

Sophomore Michelle Denley comes to Illinois after playing her freshman season at Bowling Green. She saw action between the pipes during two games for BGU and made nine saves. Freshman Darci Dietrich begins her first year as an Illini following a successful high school career in which she was a three-time all-conference selection.

"It is a great training group for coach Hultin," Rayfield said. "Michelle has stepped in and competed with Claire for the starting position. Darci has made excellent progress throughout preseason. She also will be able to push our other two goalkeepers."

Illinois will play challenging 2014 schedule, including contests against 10 NCAA Tournament teams from a year ago. The Illini will face four opponents ranked in the NSCAA preseason poll in No. 7 Michigan, No. 13 Nebraska, No. 16 Notre Dame and No. 24 Penn State. Illinois will make trips to both new members of the Big Ten, Maryland and Rutgers, as part of a new 13-game conference slate, and will travel nearly 6,000 miles round trip during the 2014 regular season (5,812 total miles).

Before beginning regular season action, the Illini played an exhibition game during preseason training (Aug. 16), defeating Indiana State 3-0 and outshooting the Sycamores 14-2. Schafer scored a goal in the first half off the first of two assists by Robishaw. Abu-Douleh netted the second goal in the 66th minute, while Flaws delivered the final goal following the pass from Robishaw.