When the Illinois soccer team hosts Notre Dame in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Sunday, it will have finished another goal in its record-breaking season.
“It was a goal that we set at the beginning of the season, to host,” senior Julie Ewing said. “So it’s just awesome to have achieved that, and for us seniors to get to play on this field one more time.”
Illinois (16-4-2, 8-2-1 Big Ten), coming off a Big Ten Tournament championship, will look to knock off defending national champion Notre Dame. Although the Irish (10-7-3, 6-3-2 Big East) have had a rocky season, they played several teams during the regular season that are now in the tournament field. Notre Dame is 1-6-1 against teams in the tournament.
“They’re the defending national champions, it’s a talented team who hasn’t gotten the results they want or probably that they feel like they’re capable of. … This is a talented team coming in here and one that comprehends the NCAA tournament, that has the experience of the NCAA tournament and that’s going to make it for an exciting game on Sunday,” Illinois head coach Janet Rayfield said.
The Irish are led by senior forward Melissa Henderson, who has scored 18 goals this season. Henderson leads an Irish attack that averages 19.7 shots per game.
“If you play a Big Ten schedule, you face a lot of prolific goal-scorers,” Rayfield said. “So the good thing for us is that we’ve faced players similar.”
Senior Jenna Carosio, the Big Ten Defender of the Year, will have her work cut out for her in stopping Henderson, the runner-up for the Hermann Trophy last season, the equivalent of the Heisman Trophy in football.
“I played her in club when I was younger, and I watched her in the finals last year,” Carosio said. “She’s fast, she’s a good finisher, so (I) just have to be clean on one-v-one defending and (we) just (have to) work together well as a unit defensively.”
On the offensive end, the Illini will be tested against a stingy Irish defense that has granted 23 goals this season — the same amount the Illini defense has allowed.
“I think we’ve done a great job of creating chances against a lot of good defenses,” Ewing said. “So I think we’ve found that it’s key to not just take the chances but to put them away, because when you play good teams like Notre Dame, you’re not going to get many opportunities, so you have to put away the ones you do get.”
Notre Dame enters the 2011 NCAA tournament having reached at least the semifinals of the tournament in its last five seasons.
The Illini have some NCAA tournament experience as well, as the senior class reached the third round in 2008, and last season the Illini lost to USC in the first round of the tournament. Illinois has reached the tournament in eight of the past 10 seasons under Rayfield.
“This senior class has really led this team for the last 11 months, and they’ve drawn on all their experiences on the field and off the field, in NCAA games and now they have a Big Ten tournament under their belt to draw experience from,” Rayfield said. “You know Notre Dame will be doing the same, they’ll be drawing from the experience their players have had over the years.”
Experience plays an important role in the NCAA tournament, as the intensity and competition are amplified in a win-or-go-home format.
“There’s nothing to replace experience,” Rayfield said. “You can give someone all the knowledge you want, but experience is very different than knowledge, I think this team will enter Sunday’s game with both knowledge and experience and make the most of it.”
The Illini haven’t lost since Oct. 25 and enter Sunday’s game with a program-record unbeaten streak of 11 straight games, winning 10 of those and tying once.
If continuing their season and reaching the second round of the tournament isn’t enough motivation, the Illini are playing for another record Sunday.
A win Sunday, which would be the 17th of the season, would make this Illinois team the winningest in program history.
“It is unreal that we have the capability to break so many records,” Carosio said. “But the talent that we have on this team is unparallel to any of the teams that I have been on, so it would be fitting, I think, to pull away with another win and break those records.”
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