The Illinois women's soccer team began this season without the coach who had made the program into a consistent winner over her 11 years in Champaign and the player who had scored one-third of the team's goals the previous two seasons.
The Illini were 3-3-1 when Janet Rayfield and Vanessa DiBernardo returned from the Under-20 Women's World Cup in Japan, where Rayfield was an assistant coach and DiBernardo a starter on the U.S. team that won the title.
"Being without Janet and Vanessa and having some players injured helped us in the long run," forward Shayla Mutz said. "We learned to overcome a lot of things, and it produced a team with a lot of fight."
Illinois rallied from a 2-0 second-half deficit to beat Michigan 3-2 in the regular-season finale, its first win at Ann Arbor. It came back the same way to beat Minnesota on penalty kicks in its Big Ten tournament opener despite being a player short for 100 minutes. It beat home-standing Missouri on penalty kicks in the NCAA opener.
"It definitely has been exciting," Mutz said.
The senior from Lockport has overcome a stress reaction in the left leg that kept her out of two games and reduced her playing time in others. Mutz still managed three goals, tied for second-highest on the team behind DiBernardo, and she had the best shooting percentage (.231).
After missing the team's first seven matches for the World Cup, DiBernardo, a junior, scored in her first Illini appearance of the season and wound up with eight goals in 15 matches. Her 36 career goals are third all-time for Illinois, leaving the Waubonsie Valley product just 11 short of the school record.
"(DiBernardo) being back opens things up a lot for other players," Mutz said. "She is really good at dictating play in the midfield and giving our team not only goals but confidence."
This is Illinois' third straight NCAA appearance — ninth under Rayfield — and the second time the former Tar Heel great has taken the Illini to Chapel Hill for an NCAA tournament match. The Illini lost 3-0 to top-seeded North Carolina — the eventual winner — in the 2008 round of 16.
NU men's soccer: The Land of Lincoln hasn't been kind to the Northwestern men's soccer team this season.
The Wildcats (11-5-4), who open NCAA play Thursday night against Western Illinois in Evanston, are just 1-3 against other Illinois teams, beating Loyola and losing to Northern Illinois, DePaul and Bradley.
Northwestern and Western Illinois are the only schools from the state to make the 48-team Division I tournament.
Cross-country: It took more than three seasons for North Central senior Yonatan Mascote of DeKalb to get his mind and body together on a cross-country course.
"My confidence is much better," Mascote said. "I've always been improving physically, but my head finally caught up to my body this fall."
Mascote left all but one rival behind last weekend as the Cardinals qualified for Saturday's NCAA Division III Championships in Terre Haute, Ind., by winning a fifth straight Midwest Regional title. He finished less than two seconds behind winner Tim Nelson of Wisconsin-Stout and a half-second ahead of North Central teammate Dan Kerley of Vienna (Ill.).
North Central, defending NCAA champion, moved up to second behind Haverford in the final regular-season poll.
•Gina Valgoi, a senior from Detroit, became the first Loyola woman to qualify for the NCAA Division I cross-country meet, Saturday in Louisville, Ky. Valgoi finished sixth in the Midwest Regionals. … Among other qualifiers: Arkansas State sophomore Kristina Aubert (Crystal Lake South), who was seventh in the South Central Regional. ... Illini senior Hunter Mickow of Princeton (Ill.) and grad student Jannis Topfer of Germany earned NCAA spots as their team finished fourth of 29 at the Midwest Regionals, the best finish for the Illinois men since 2002. Mickow's sixth was the highest Illini place at the meet since Trent Hoerr won in 2007.