MSU will head to Illinois this weekend to take on the state’s two Big Ten representatives, Illinois and Northwestern.
On Friday, MSU (9-6-1 overall, 3-6-1 Big Ten) will battle the Fighting Illini in an 8 p.m. game. Illinois (9-6-1, 4-5-1 Big Ten) is led by redshirt senior Jannelle Flaws, who has a conference-best 17 goals through 16 games. Her 17 goals are also the second most by any player in the nation this year.
“Without completely disrupting your system, you have to have an awareness of her at all times,” head coach Tom Saxton said about defending Flaws. “She will shoot from anywhere. A lot of times in the women’s game when people pull up from distance, we’re like ‘go ahead’ because they rarely put enough pace on the ball to beat somebody from 35-40 yards. Well, she can do it.”
Saxton noted that Flaws is especially dangerous on second chances and broken plays.
Illinois sits three points ahead of MSU in the conference standings, so a win in Champaign could be pivotal.
“The thing that makes Illinois really important is they’re one game ahead of us in the standings,” Saxton said. “If we can beat them and get even with them, we have head-to-head over them. It could come down to any type of scenarios for those last couple spots next weekend.”
MSU has struggled mightily against Illinois, having lost eight straight games to the Illini. Overcoming this streak will be difficult, but junior defender will head into the game with a clear mind.
“Each year is a different team,” Gjonaj said. “We’re a different team than we were last year, and I’m sure they’re a different team than they were last year. We’re just going to come out strong and hopefully beat them.”
Illinois will bring a high pressure attack to the Spartans, something that is uncommon within the conference.
“We’re definitely not used to high pressure because a lot of teams in the Big Ten don’t do high pressure,” redshirt junior said. “I think if we can take the first ten to fifteen minutes and settle down a little bit, we’ll be able to relax them and play our game.”
MSU will turn around on Sunday to take on Northwestern (6-7-3 overall, 2-6-2 Big Ten). The Wildcats are anchored by sophomore forward Addie Steiner and freshman goalkeeper Lauren Clem, the cousin of MSU’s redshirt senior keeper .
Northwestern just picked up their second conference win in a 1-0 overtime triumph over Rutgers. Steiner scored the game winner for Northwestern.
MSU defeated Northwestern last season 2-1, coming through with a goal in the 83rd minute to pick up the victory.
Regardless of Friday night’s outcome, MSU will need to prepare for adverse conditions on Sunday. Located off of Lake Michigan, wind and weather could be a factor. MSU will also need to adjust to the field conditions in Evanston.
“Going from natural grass to turf is tricky, because Northwestern’s turf is bad,” Saxton said. “It’s old, it’s hard, and honestly on Saturday, we’ll have to spend an hour just getting used to bouncing balls.”
The chase is on for MSU to get into conference tournament, so wins this weekend will be key to keeping postseason hopes alive.
“What I believe, from being the chair of the Great Lakes rankings committee and following stuff over the years, winning three probably gives us a great shot to be in both postseason events,” Saxton said. “I think if we win two out of three, we’ll have a chance. We’ll probably need some help in other areas.”