CHAMPAIGN — It probably should come as no surprise that Illinois produced the Offensive Player of the Big Ten Tournament in women's soccer.
After all, the No. 16 Illini emerged from the eight-team scrum at Northwestern's Lakeside Field in Evanston last week with the first-place trophy.
What likely did open some eyes, however, was the identity of the award recipient.
It wasn't sophomore midfielder Vanessa DiBernardo, whose team-leading 17th goal of the season in overtime lifted Illinois past top-seeded Penn State in the title match.
Neither, for that matter, was it NCAA goal-scoring leader Maya Hayes of Penn State. In fact, the award went to none of the eight players in the tournament who rank in the Big Ten's top 10 in goals scored this season.
And yet, it made perfect sense to the voters — and to Illini coach Janet Rayfield in particular — that another Illini midfielder be singled out from all the offensive firepower on hand.
"If you looked over the weekend, the player who was really making an impact for us from an offensive standpoint was Marissa Mykines," Rayfield said. "She just had an impact on every game that we played."
Let's count the ways:
— In a first-round tie against Ohio State, the 5-foot-3 senior contributed to the Illini's 4-2 edge in penalty kicks that decided the outcome.
— In the semifinals against Michigan State, Mykines delivered a pinpoint shot to the lower left corner for the lone goal of the match in an overtime victory.
— In the title match, the Spokane, Wash., native maneuvered through three Penn State defenders and fired a crossing pass to Julie Ewing for a goal that gave Illinois a 1-0 lead.
"Very impressive," Rayfield said. "I think one of the hardest things in the Big Ten right now is to (stand out as) an attacking player because of the depth of talent on the attacking side in the Big Ten.
"She's continued to improve and really set herself as a dangerous person in the Big Ten."
Mykines, who entered 2011 with six goals in her collegiate career, has scored eight this season. Her emergence as a goal scorer is one of the most important — and perhaps most unexpected — developments in the NCAA tournament-bound Illini's march to a school-record-tying 16 victories and their first Big Ten tournament title since 2003.
Unexpected because Mykines, a starter since her sophomore year, failed to score a single goal last season.
"That was frustrating," said Mykines, who was unable to cash in on any of the 53 shots she took in 2010. "Once you start getting it in your head like 'Oh, I keep missing,' it's tough to kind of rebound from that.
"But I think that just made me stronger for senior year."
Not that Mykines didn't contribute to the Illini attack as a junior. Her six assists tied for the team lead. But, as Mykines puts it, "it's important to do both," and she was determined this season to become a well-rounded attacker who not only sets up teammates but can find the back of the net herself, too.
In the eyes of her coach, it's mission accomplished.
"She's gone from a great player to a great goal scorer," Rayfield said, "and that's not an easy transition to make.
"Marissa was getting shots last year and just couldn't seem to get them on frame. A little too much adrenaline. And then you start to push and really try hard.
"Coming into this year she worked a lot on it. ... She got relaxed in that and now you've got a confident goal scorer who sees that opportunity, wants that opportunity and is ready to put the ball in the back of the net. And when you go in with that kind mentality, chances are you've got a lot higher chance of scoring those goals."
As her award-winning performance in the Big Ten tournament attests, Mykines is adept at scoring when it's meaningful. The All-Big Ten second-teamer has delivered three game-winning goals in 2011, matching her career total entering the season. Rayfield points to her ice-breaking first goals of the match in late-season road wins against Northwestern and Nebraska as examples of Mykines' knack for timely scores.
"She's obviously come through in some clutch times for us," the UI coach said.
More such opportunities await as Illinois opens the NCAA tournament today against defending national champion Notre Dame. With a 10-0-1 record in their last 11 matches, the Illini — much like Mykines with the ball at her foot — fit the description of dangerous.
"In my opinion, we're playing really great right now," Mykines said. "I think we're a tough team to play with, but that's if we remain consistent. I think we have the potential to ... get as far as this program has ever gotten. We've just got to do all the little things right to make that happen."