2013 Illinois Soccer Season Preview
Aug 21, 2013
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - A new season begins this week, but the expectations remain the same for the Illinois women's soccer team. A year after reaching the NCAA Tournament second round and Big Ten Tournament title game, the Illini are eager to reach greater heights under 12th-year head coach Janet Rayfield.
"We expect to compete for a Big Ten title every year," Rayfield said. "That is the goal of the program, not just the goal of the team. If you do that consistently, you put yourself in position to also make the NCAA Tournament every year. The next step for this program is to make an Elite Eight and a Final Four. We have built some consistency and have the experience of playing for Big Ten titles and in the NCAA Tournament, so now it is time to take that next step."
As the Illini attempt to reach their goal, they will have the benefit of the home crowd at the end of the conference season since they will host the Big Ten Tournament (Nov. 6-10) at the Illinois Soccer Stadium. The Illini, who will welcome the event back to Champaign for the first time since 2000, have made the Big Ten Tournament championship game each of the past two seasons, including winning it in 2011. The 2013 season also marks the 10-year anniversary of Illinois' first Big Ten Tournament title in 2003.
"You really have to make the most of the opportunity to showcase your program," said Rayfield of hosting the Big Ten Tournament. "It doesn't happen very often since it rotates through all the schools. There certainly is a lot of motivation when hosting that event to be able to show off your team to the fans and the community."
Illinois tied for fourth in the Big Ten in 2012 with a record of 6-4-1 and advanced to the NCAA Tournament for the third year in a row and ninth time overall under Rayfield. The Illini won their opening round match against Missouri before falling to eventual national champion North Carolina in the second round to finish with an overall mark of 10-9-4.
Heading into 2013, the Illini were picked third in the Big Ten preseason coaches' poll and received votes in the official National Soccer Coaches Association of America (NSCAA) Top-25 rankings. In the Top Drawer Soccer rankings, UI checked in at No. 17, while Soccer America and BennettRank's computer poll placed the Orange and Blue at No. 25.
Illinois returns seven starters from last year's squad, highlighted by two-time All-American Vanessa DiBernardo. The Naperville, Ill., native has already racked up several preseason awards heading into her final season in orange and blue. She was named to the MAC Hermann Trophy watch list for the third consecutive season, the No. 3 upperclassmen by Top Drawer Soccer and a Big Ten Player to Watch.
Despite missing the first month of the season while helping the U.S. U-20 team to the U-20 World Cup title in Japan, DiBernardo led the Illini in goals (8), points (21) and shots (89) in 2012 on her way to earning third-team All-America and first-team All-Great Lakes honors. The three-time first-team All-Big Ten selection will serve as the leader of a youthful squad.
Several young players will contribute in the midfield along with DiBernardo. Sophomore Nicole Breece, a fellow Big Ten Player to Watch, will look to build on a solid rookie season in which she was second on the team with 11 points while being named to the All-Big Ten Freshman Team. Sophomore Taylore Peterson also is back after making 19 starts as a freshman and netting two goals on just 11 shots. Other Illini in the mix in the midfield include senior Kristen Gierman and sophomore Amy Feher, who both saw time in a majority of games last season, sophomore Reagan Robishaw and freshmen Casey Conine, Hope D'Addario, Meegan Johnston and Allison Stucky.
Four target forwards will provide experience in front of the youthful midfield. A combination of senior Megan Pawloski, juniors Jannelle Flaws and Allie Osoba and redshirt-sophomore Megan Green will be used up front. Osoba and Pawloski each tallied six points in 2012, while Flaws, who was on the All-Big Ten Freshman Team in 2011, is back after missing the 2012 season due to a leg injury.
Illinois also will boast experience in the backfield with two seniors, Kassidy Brown and Christina Farrell, expected to bolster the starting back line along with redshirt-sophomore Aliina Weykamp. Brown, who started every game as a junior, was named a Preseason Big Ten Player to Watch, while Farrell also started all 23 games on defense in 2012. Weykamp played mainly in the midfield a year ago, but will transition into more of a defensive role this season.
The Illini starting lineup will feature a new goalkeeper following the graduation of three-year starter Steph Panozzo, who capped off a stellar career by equaling Leisha Alcia's school-record mark of 111 saves during the 2012 season. Junior Lizzi Sanscrainte and freshman Claire Wheatley have competed for the job during the preseason along with senior Lauren Parkin.
Illinois will begin the 2013 season on the road at No. 10 Notre Dame on Aug. 23 at 4:30 p.m. and at Louisville on Aug. 25 at noon. The Illini will host their home opener at the Illinois Soccer Stadium against College of Charleston on Aug. 30 at 7 p.m.