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CHAMPAIGN – Mention the term game face and it conjures images of an intense expression. All serious and steely-eyed. Maybe even a hint of anger.
Then there's Vanessa DiBernardo.
Her game face? All smiley face. All the time.
"She's always smiling," Illinois soccer teammate Laura Knutson said. "You can always tell when she's laughing. She has a very distinct laugh. Never in a bad mood. Always ready to run with a happy face on.
"But don't get me wrong. She's a very intense player."
If there's any athlete who proves that intensity and a propensity for flashing the pearly whites are not mutually exclusive, it's this Illini freshman.
You don't get to be the 2010 Illinois Gatorade Player of the Year or a two-time National Soccer Coaches Association of America/adidas All-American without maximum focus and determination and passion for the sport. And, of course, talent.
"A player of Vanessa's caliber I think is a great get for us," Illini coach Janet Rayfield said of her prized recruit. "She's got great credentials. She had an unbelievable high school career.
"But I think some of her best accomplishments, from a soccer perspective, are probably ahead of her. ... Yes, she was a great get, but we're going to be even more proud of having her in an Illinois uniform when the future plays out."
For DiBernardo, the journey officially begins tonight, when the Naperville native and her Illini teammates open the 2010 season in Chicago against Loyola.
With the graduation losses of two-time All-Big Ten selection Jackie Santacaterina and Courtney Bell – each of whom played more than 1,000 minutes last season – the Illini midfield corps faced significant voids that needed to be filled.
At the same time, Rayfield is looking to repower an attack that was shut out seven times and held to one goal on four other occasions last season. With her passing prowess and goal-scoring abilities, DiBernardo has the goods to make a major offensive impact.
"Finding the back of the net last year was definitely an issue," Rayfield said, "and Vanessa will help us in more ways than one. She serves a great ball so she makes people like Jordan (Hilbrands, the 2009 UI scoring leader) that much more dangerous. But she also has a great shot of her own.
"She's kind of a dual threat. ... And those kind of players are hard to defend."
From what she's seen of DiBernardo so far, Knutson is confident the freshman will provide a needed boost.
"She's definitely a very skilled player," the senior midfielder said. "She has an amazing shot and she can place the ball wherever she wants.
"As her experience comes and we get further and further into the Big Ten season, she'll be creating all kinds of (scoring) opportunities. She looks to hit seams (in the defense), make runs. She's a little ball of energy that we need."
Sizing her up
DiBernardo stands 5-foot-4. In a league as big and physical as the Big Ten, the four-time all-stater from Aurora Waubonsie Valley will need to depend upon her quickness and instincts.
"She's going to have to rely on her game awareness and her game savvy to get out of a lot of those physical confrontations," Rayfield said. "I think it will be a transition in terms of the physical demands and how physically combative the game may be.
"But I also think she has the tools to combat that – quickness, agility, reading the game. Vanessa will avoid a lot of physical confrontations just because she'll read the game faster than most."
DiBernardo typically has been one of the smaller players on the field as she grew older.
"I'm aware of my surroundings and know if somebody's going to be right on me," DiBernardo said. "(It's) just seeing who's by me and how much pressure I have on me."
Rayfield and Knutson expect that as DiBernardo matures and spends more time in the Illini strength-training program, she'll better cope with any physical confrontations.
"She is small, so in the Big Ten season she's going to get knocked around," Knutson said. "But as a freshman that's normal and she'll get used to it. She'll find her way. She'll build strength and over time will grow to be an even better player."
DiBernardo is a coach's kid. And not just any coach.
Her father, Angelo DiBernardo, is a renowned figure in U.S. soccer circles. An All-American at Indiana, he won the Hermann Trophy in 1979 as the nation's top collegiate player.
DiBernardo went on to play for the U.S. National Team for seven years, including the Olympic years of 1980 (when the U.S. boycotted the Moscow Games) and '84. He also had a nine-year professional career – six of those coming with a New York Cosmos team headlined by the legendary Pele.
The game remains a part of his life, DiBernardo serving as the longtime boys' soccer coach at Waubonsie Valley and at Naperville-based America's Soccer Club, where Vanessa was one of his most astute pupils.
"He's taught me almost everything I know," she said.
Those lessons came with no strings attached. When it was time for Angelo DiBernardo's daughter to select a college, Vanessa says she felt no pressure to pick Dad's alma mater.
"I think deep down he would have loved for me to go to Indiana, but he respects my decision," she said.
Actually, the Hoosiers weren't in Vanessa's top two. She says it came down to Illinois and Michigan. The former won out, in large measure because of Rayfield's share-the-ball attack – just like Dad teaches.
"How Illinois passes around and just makes passes instead of just kicking it ... was a huge thing," Vanessa said.
Anyone who's seen the Illini newcomer on a soccer field can tell that Dad passed along something else, too, to his daughter: A love of the game.
That dazzling white smile gives it away.
"You see someone who was brought up in the game, who it was part of their everyday life and in a really positive way," Rayfield said. "Not in a way that, in any shape or form, has dampened her enthusiasm.
"It's really fun to watch someone who has been that immersed in the game still smile every time she's playing. ... You can see the enjoyment on her face."