Aug. 22, 2006
After graduating a pair of All-Americans following the 2004 season and the winningest class in program history in 2005, a lowering of expectations could be understood by those outside the Illinois program. But head coach Janet Rayfield and her staff refuse to work that way, bringing in the ninth-ranked recruiting class in the nation and preparing for a deep postseason run as the program turns a decade old.
With leading scorers Jessica Bayne (8 g, 5 a, 21 p in 2005) and Eva Strickland (5 g, 6 a, 16 p) returning, and top midfielder Paula Faherty healthy after missing 2005 with a stress fracture, the Illini have the leadership to contend in the Big Ten and on the national scene.
Adding to that is a talented junior class that includes starting right back Mary Therese McDonnell, a Big Ten and Soccer Buzz Great Lakes All-Freshman selection in 2004, starting goalkeeper Lindsey Carstens, who racked up six shutouts in 16 matches before breaking her fibula at Purdue in 2005, forward Ella Masar, who was fourth on the team in points last season, and midfielder Kristy Weeks, who started 20 matches a year ago.
Who's Back: Bayne, an All-Big Ten Tournament team selection in 2005, leads a talented group of Illini forwards who return all but one from their ranks a year ago. Strickland and Masar figure to join Bayne for one of the most experienced Illini attacking lines in years. Those three combined to score 46 of Illinois' 96 points in 2005 (48 percent), including 16 of 34 goals (47 percent).
Who's Not: The only loss the Illini realize up front is Natasha Karniski, who has moved to the coaching staff as a student assistant. Karniski tied for second on the team in goals with Strickland, scoring five a year ago.
Who's New: Chichi Nweke, Christina Sahly and Ashley Varns bring pace, power, and possession to the Illinois attack. Nweke's pace and 1v1 ability make her a threat, Sahly can hold the ball and find the net or her teammates in goal scoring positions, and Varns has the strength to power her way into the box and unlease a powerful shot.
Who's Back: After taking a medical redshirt in 2005, Faherty returns to lead a seasoned group in the Illini midfield. Faherty was a rock as a junior in 2004, starting all 24 games and scoring seven points (2 g, 3 a) while helping Illinois to an Elite Eight run in the NCAA Tournament. Joining her are returning letterwinners Weeks, Marti Desjarlais, and Jamie Alvis. Desjarlais was named to the Big Ten All-Freshman team last season, while Weeks started 20 of 22 matches and dished a pair of assists in 2005. Alvis saw action in 14 matches a year ago, showing flashes of her ability in the air.
Who's Not: Illinois will miss four-year letterwinner Laura Redmond in the defensive midfield, and Kimberly Coninx graduated after being hampered by injuries in 2005.
Who's New: Adding a ball winner in Santacaterina and a skillful attacking threat in Bell to the Illinois midfield means depth on both sides of the ball. Both the defense in and ability to attack from the midfield will improve with the addition of these two very competitive athletes.
Who's Back: Emily Zurrer, who was named to the Big Ten All-Freshman team a year ago, and Mary Therese McDonnell provide a strong defensive foundation. Zurrer grew into her center back position throughout the 2005 season, playing some of her best soccer in NCAA tournament matches against No. 20 Florida and No. 11 Florida State. She is also a key cog on offensive set pieces, using her height and ability in the air. McDonnell is an excellent defensive presence at right back, but will also be an offensive weapon coming forward with or without the ball. Kara Gostisha will likely play alongside Zurrer after moving from her midfield position in the spring, and sophomore Jessica Levitt moves to an outside back spot after battling through injuries as a forward in 2005.
Who's Not: Without a doubt, the loss of All-American Christen Karniski and All-Big Ten performer Kelly Campbell will be the hardest hit to any unit on the Illini team. Karniski was the ultimate left back, earning recognition as Big Ten co-Defensive Player of the Year in 2005. At the same time, Campbell was a wall at center back and took her share of free kicks.
Who's New: Brittany Garrett and Emily Pickard may differ in size but share a common mentality to battle and fight to the end - a mentality shared by the two defenders the Illini lose from 2005.
Who's Back: Junior Lindsey Carstens looks to make the jump to an elite keeper in 2006 after a strong first season in goal a year ago. Carstens racked up a 0.99 goals-against average and is healthy after sustaining a broken fibula at Purdue on Oct. 23 and missing the team's final five matches.
Who's Not: After spending much of her career as Illinois' back-up keeper, Rachel Frank pitched two shutouts in five starts after Carstens' injury and allowed just five goals.
Who's New: Raw but instinctive, Alexandra Kapicka will use her height to challenge Carstens to own her box while Carstens teaches Kapicka how to read the game at the collegiate level.
While a strong start could be key, the Illini face a daunting schedule with five of the first eight games away from the friendly confines of Illinois Soccer and Track Stadium. Not to mention that three of those five games are against NCAA Tournament qualifiers from a year ago. But after being tested to the limit in non-conference play, Illinois will be poised to chase its first regular season Big Ten title and make deep runs into the Big Ten and NCAA Tournaments. With a strong core returning from last year and the addition of a top-10 national recruiting class, the Illini are as strong as ever as the program enters its 10th season.