When Missouri soccer hosts its first NCAA Tournament match in four years Saturday night at Walton Stadium, the Tigers will be lining up against a familiar opponent.
That opponent is Illinois (10-8-3). The last time the two teams met was 2008. The Illini topped the Tigers 4-3 on penalty kicks after two overtimes, eliminating them from the NCAA Tournament in the second round.
“They are a good team,” coach Bryan Blitz said. “They’re consistently in the (NCAA) Tournament. We know those players very, very well, and they know us well.”
Blitz, however, won’t be coaching Missouri on Saturday night. Instead, he will be serving a one-game suspension for the red card he received during the Tigers' 3-0 loss to Florida last weekend in the Southeastern Conference Tournament semifinals.
Blitz said he and the referee got into “a disagreement” because he felt fouls should have been called that weren’t. His players were adamant this week that Blitz was defending them.
“He always has our back,” senior defender Allison Hu said. “The fouls and the calls weren’t really going our way (against Florida), so it’s really nice to have a coach that has our backs when it comes to those kinds of things.”
Associate head coach Todd Shulenberger will take the reigns in Blitz’s absence.
Senior midfielder Jessica Greer said even though she will miss Blitz’ presence on the sideline, Missouri should be able to survive without him.
“I wish he was going to be out there, but I know he has confidence in his staff,” Greer said. “And we have confidence in our coaches so I don’t think it will be a problem.”
Blitz said that more important than his status for the game is the fact that his team is the healthiest it has been since Aug. 17, when the Tigers ran by then-No.14 Memphis, 5-1.
Forward Alyssa Diggs is recovered from her hamstring strain. Defender Candace Johnson is no longer being bothered by a sore quad. Hu is over a stomach flu that sidelined her last weekend.
Missouri will need all of its resources for Saturday, when it hosts an Illinois squad led by a dangerous scorer and a standout keeper. Forward Vanessa DiBernardo played in just 14 of Illinois' 21 matches this season but was still able to rack up 20 points, more than double any of her teammates.
Keeper Steph Panozzo is equally stellar in the net. She recorded four shutouts this year, including a 1-0 win against No. 3 Penn State on Nov. 2.
“Illinois demands respect, so we’re certainly not going to look past that,” Blitz said. “It’ll be a heck of a game.”
CORRECTION: This article originally misspelled coach Bryan Blitz's name "Brian." The Maneater regrets this error.