Round 1: Land of Lincoln battle

Nina Mandell

When the Northwestern women’s soccer players look across the field today, they will be looking at very familiar faces.

NU (10-7-2, 5-4-1 Big Ten ) faces 18th-ranked Illinois (12-4-2, 5-3-2) in the first round of the Big Ten tournament, less than two weeks after playing the Fighting Illini in the regular season. The match between the in-state rivals ended in a scoreless tie in the conference season finale.

After hours of studying tapes of the game, players said they are confident in their knowledge of the Illini.

“We know them and they know us,” NU midfielder Shannon Schneeman said. “It’s going to be a good battle.”

Since the game against the Illini, the players have been working on small tactical changes, but they don’t plan on altering anything else from what they called “a pretty good game.”

Illinois and NU have been in a battle in the conference standings and for state bragging rights throughout the season. Illinois is seeded fourth and NU is seeded fifth in the tournament after both finished the regular conference season with five wins. The Illini were seeded ahead of NU because they had one more tie and one fewer loss than the Wildcats.

But the two programs are going in opposite directions. NU didn’t qualify for the eight-team tournament last year, while Illinois was seeded second and ranked 11th in the nation.

“It’s a good sign showing what direction our program is going in,” Tabitha Lowey said.

This marks the Cats’ first appearance in the Big Ten tournament since 2001, when they lost in the opening round to Penn State. Only the team’s seniors have Big Ten tournament experience, but most of them were freshman watching from the bench. Players said after three years of early exits, they are thrilled to be competing in the tournament.

“It’s a really good feeling,” Schneeman said. “All of the seniors were here as freshmen, so they’re excited to be back. For everyone else, it’s a new thing.”

If the Cats can score a victory in the first round, they will face the winner of Penn State-Indiana game. Cats senior Ashleigh Garmon said she viewed the No. 3 Nittany Lions as the Cats’ biggest threat. Still, she said NU is focusing on advancing past its first-round opponent.

“I’ve been waiting for this for three years,” she said. “Hopefully we can just take it to them.”

Reach Nina Mandell at [email protected]

NU (10-7-2, 5-4-1 Big Ten) vs. Illinois (12-4-2, 5-3-2)

When: Today

Where: Columbus, Ohio