CHAMPAIGN — For some unfortunate athletes, the sophomore slump is more than just an abstract concept.
For Vanessa DiBernardo, it's merely a rumor.
"I've heard of it," she said. "That's definitely something I do want to avoid."
Safe to say the dynamic Illinois soccer player has neatly sidestepped the proverbial Year 2 pothole that's been known to trip up its share of sophomores each season.
One year after being named Big Ten Freshman of the Year in her sport and Female Newcomer of the Year by her school, DiBernardo not only has stayed the course in 2011 but also raised the bar.
Having already set the UI record for game-winning goals in a season, the sophomore midfielder enters the second round of the NCAA tournament Friday at Stillwater, Okla., on the cusp of the most prolific campaign by an attacker in school history.
With 17 goals and 39 points, DiBernardo trails record-holder Emily Brown (1998-2000) by one in each category.
And considering that the two-time All-Big Ten first-teamer has two full seasons still ahead of her, there's reason to wonder whether DiBernardo eventually will be regarded as the best of the Illini's all-time best offensive players.
"I think she definitely has that chance," UI coach Janet Rayfield said. "She certainly is putting herself to be at the top of the record books when she leaves here."
Certainly, too, no Illini player draws the attention of opposing defenses to the degree that DiBernardo commands, which makes her scoring achievements this season that much more notable.
Rayfield cites two primary reasons that DiBernardo has continued to produce points in the face of such defensive pressure.
The first is the midfielder's ability to read defenses and seize on the openings — no matter how slight — that exist in their schemes.
"During the course of a game you start to figure out where the spaces are, where there's an opportunity, where those chances are," Rayfield said. "As the game goes on she probably gets more and more knowledgeable about what she can do to create a goal-scoring opportunity for us and for herself. She figures those things out ... and has that soccer IQ to do that."
The second factor is that DiBernardo's teammates continue to give opposing defenses something to worry about. Four of her teammates have scored at least five goals this season, and three others have notched three goals.
Rival defenses that focus too much on Illinois' leading scorer seemingly do so at their own risk.
"If she were the only weapon we had I think it would make her life much more difficult," Rayfield said. "All of those (other) players getting involved in our attack, I think, makes it really hard to focus on Vanessa. ... They have to defend Illinois, not just Vanessa DiBernardo."
At 5-foot-4 and with a slight frame, DiBernardo is hardly a physically imposing presence on a soccer field. During her college career she's dealt with her share of bumps and bruises from in-your-face defenders attempting to slow or even intimidate her.
"Some teams might try to be more physical with me because I'm not that physical of a player," DiBernardo said. "Sometimes I'll get marked more closely in some games than others, but I just have to deal with it.
"I just try to keep moving the ball and not hold on to it too much so they can't really get me."
Given DiBernardo's superior speed and quickness, a defender who presses too closely for too long can easily be left flat-footed by the Big Ten Midfielder of the Year.
"She can use a defender's aggression against them at times," Rayfield said. "If you try to be too aggressive, she and the ball are gone before you know it because of her quickness and because of her ability to see things coming before they happen.
"I think teams have realized that just trying to be physical actually could be counterproductive."
Whatever methods and schemes opponents use against DiBernardo, it's apparent she's learned to deal with them. Seventeen goals in 22 matches attest to that. The fact that eight of those scores have won matches for Illinois attests, too, to the fact she typically rises to the occasion when her team needs her most.
"You saw it in the Big Ten title game," said Illini forward Megan Pawloski, referring to DiBernardo's overtime goal against top-seeded Penn State in the conference tournament final. "She's a go-to player. We know we can count on her when the game's on the line."
Staff writer Jeff Huth takes a closer look at the NCAA second-round matchup between No. 16 Illinois and No. 4 Oklahoma State:
The Illini attack seemingly faces its toughest challenge yet this season. Oklahoma State ranks No. 1 nationally in goals-against average (0.295) and save percentage (.929). The Cowgirls also have shut out more opponents (16) than any team in the nation. The Oklahoma State defense is anchored by senior defender Melinda Mercado, a two-time Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year, and junior goalkeeper Adrianna Franch. Franch ranks No. 2 nationally in goals-against average and save percentage.
With a victory, Illinois would reach the Sweet 16 for the fourth time in the program’s 15-year history. The Illini advanced past the second round in 2004, 2006 and 2008. To do so again, Illinois will need to hand second-seeded Oklahoma State its first home loss this season. OSU is 11-0-1 at Cowgirls Soccer Complex. During the Janet Rayfield coaching era at Illinois, however, her teams have held their own in NCAA matches hosted by the opponent. Since Rayfield first guided the Illini into the postseason in 2004, her teams are 4-4 in such situations — beating Texas A&M (2004), Florida (2005), St. Louis (2006) and Missouri (2008) on the foe’s turf.
In their 1-0 first-round victory, the Illini put the clamps on one of the NCAA’s most dangerous attackers. Notre Dame’s Melissa Henderson, the 2010 National Player of the Year runner-up, was held without a shot. The senior entered with 18 goals this season and 70 in her career. Illinois’ defense faces a more diverse challenge Friday. Five Cowgirls have scored between five and nine goals this year. After an inconsistent start, the Illini defense is playing at a level rivaling Oklahoma State’s. Since Sept. 25, Illinois has limited 13 opponents to seven goals.
ON A ROLL
Oklahoma State is ranked higher and, unlike the Illini, received one of the tournament’s 16 national seeds. But the Cowgirls can’t claim to be the hottest team entering Friday’s matchup. Illinois is undefeated in its last 12 matches, going 11-0-1. In the one tie — against Ohio State in the first round of the Big Ten tournament — the Illini advanced via penalty kicks. While Illinois was marching to the Big Ten tournament title Nov. 6, the Cowgirls were absorbing their first loss of the season — 1-0 to Texas A&M — in the Big 12 tournament final. Since opening with 15 straight wins, Oklahoma State is 5-1-2.
As we alluded to earlier, by all indications goals will be tough to get against the Cowgirls. If this indeed turns out to be an extremely low-scoring match, Illinois should be in its element. The Illini have been in seven matches this season decided by 1-0 scores and own a 6-1 record in them. If this match goes to overtime, Illinois has ample experience in such pressure-cookers, too. In matches that extended past regulation time this season, the Illini are 4-0-2, with one of the ties decided by penalty kicks. Illinois won that battle, too.
The Illini women’s soccer team resumes its bid to advance in the NCAA tournament this weekend in Stillwater, Okla. The schedule:
Auburn (15-6-2) vs. Maryland (11-5-4), 2:30 p.m.
Illinois (17-4-2) vs. Oklahoma State (20-1-2), 5 p.m.
Friday’s winners, 1 p.m.
Note: Friday’s match between Illinois and Oklahoma State will be video-streamed free at www.okstate.com/allaccess