Before the Illinois soccer team opens its season Friday at No. 10 Notre Dame, coach Janet Rayfield and her team posed for the camera and answered questions on media day. Staff writer JEFF HUTH returned with storylines on the 2013 Illini:
One year ago at this time, Illinois soccer coach Janet Rayfield and her best player, Vanessa DiBernardo, were in Japan, helping the United States win an Under-20 World Cup Championship title. During that unforgettable experience, each was absent from the Illini for the first seven matches of the 2012 season.
For Rayfield and senior midfielder DiBernardo, who’s become a fixture in the U.S. Soccer pipeline, no such scheduling conflict exists this season. “It’s nice to be here with the team ... throughout the whole preseason,” DiBernardo said at Tuesday’s media day activities. “It’s a lot different when you have to go and come back.” Without Rayfield and DiBernardo, the Illini got off to a 3-3-1 start. By season’s end, however, Illinois was a Big Ten tournament finalist and in the second round of the NCAA tournament before being ousted by eventual national champion North Carolina. DiBernardo has accomplished plenty in her award-filled college career, including leading Illinois in goals and points scored each of the last three seasons. But the two-time All-American says there are two goals of another kind that will provide plenty of motivation during her final season as an Illini: winning a Big Ten regular season title and advancing past the second round of the NCAA tournament. “Because we haven’t done that yet since I‘ve been here,” DiBernardo said.
The Big Ten tournament is returning to campus this year following a lengthy absence. The UI last hosted the event in 2000, two years before Rayfield’s first season as Illini head coach. “We’re excited to be hosting,” she said. “I think it puts an extra carrot out there for us in terms of really trying to position ourselves in the regular season to have a good seed going into the Big Ten tournament. And certainly we’re excited to play that event in front of our home crowd.” If history is any indication, Illini fans can expect their favorite team to make a deep run. During Rayfield’s tenure, the Big Ten tournament has been held nine times (it was briefly discontinued in 2009 and ‘10 before resuming). In that span, Illinois has won two tournament titles and finished second twice. Moreover, Rayfield’s teams have reached the semifinals eight times, falling short only in 2008. How does the UI coach explain such consistently strong performances near season’s end? “One of the big things we value is improvement,” Rayfield said. “I think it’s part of our tradition that it’s not about where you start or even what you look like when you start. It’s about getting better every day. And if you get better every day, things take care of themselves at the end.”
For only the second time since Rayfield took over the program, she’ll enter a season without having settled on a starting goalkeeper. Typically, her Illini teams have had either an established returning starter or an obvious heir apparent who seized the opportunity during the preseason. Only in 2010 did Rayfield previously enter the opener with significant competition for the starter’s role, ultimately settling on redshirt senior Alexandra Kapicka over sophomore Steph Panozzo. What makes this season unique is that the three keeper candidates have virtually no collegiate playing experience. Senior Lauren Parkin, junior Lizzi Sanscrainte and freshman Claire Wheatley have appeared in a combined one collegiate match — for all of six minutes. Wheatley and Sanscrainte are the front-runners at this point, but “that race isn’t over yet for sure,” Rayfield said. “I think it may be a couple games into the season before we know for sure. I don’t think it will be keeper by committee, but I think it could be a possibility that we split time these first couple games and give both of them an opportunity.”
For the long haul
One of the major offseason developments in Illini soccer was a contract extension for Rayfield that will keep her at the team’s helm through at least 2017. The five-year extension was extraordinary given that coaches of non-revenue sports typically receive no more than three additional years — sometimes less — when their contracts are up. Not so in this case, with UI athletic director Mike Thomas making sure the winningest coach in Illini soccer history will still be around late into this decade. “To build a great program takes consistency,” said Rayfield, who has a 140-80-22 career record at Illinois. “And I think what Mike was committing to and what I’ve committed to is that we want the consistency that it takes not just to be a great Illinois team for 2013, but to make this a program that has a legacy and a long-lasting history. Certainly, I’ve been committed to that, and for Mike to say, ‘Yes, you’re the person we want to continue to do that,’ was certainly a vote of confidence for me.”
Time to catch a break
By now, Jannelle Flaws not only is used to the teasing from her teammates; the veteran forward has a well-practiced response to the question, What class do you belong to? “When I get asked, I say I don’t have a class, because you could realistically put me in three different ones.” For the record, Flaws academically is a senior. From an athletic eligibility standpoint, the former Glenbrook South All-Stater is a redshirt junior. But should the Illini eventually be granted a sixth season of eligibility by the NCAA on medical grounds, she could end up being a redshirt senior two years in a row. Or, more technically, a graduate student-athlete. What’s causing all this confusion? An incredible run of bad luck with injuries that first struck late in her senior year of high school. That’s went Flaws suffered a torn ACL in her right knee in the semifinals of the IHSA Class 3A state semifinals in 2010. The injury sidelined the Glenview native for her freshman season at the UI. Flaws returned in 2011, earning a spot on the Big Ten All-Freshman Team as a redshirt freshman. The following spring, she tore the ACL in the same knee and again sat out an entire season last year. “It was difficult,” Flaws said. “It was definitely harder my freshman year because I came in injured, and when you’re injured ... it’s kind of a lot to handle.” Rayfield knows what Flaws is capable of, even when she’s still getting her feet under her following a major injury. In 2011, the Illini forward scored three goals and had three assists in 22 matches as a top reserve. She also put 17 of her 28 shots on goal for a team-best .607 SOG percentage among players with at least 12 shot attempts. “What she can do hasn’t even been yet to be seen,” Rayfield said. “The one season she did play, she was still hampered by an injury she was not completely recovered from. This will be like sort of a freshman year for her, I think; the first year where maybe she’s completely healthy and can really try to do the things that she’s capable of doing.” Now, if only the injury bug will keep its distance. “I’m definitely excited to get back out there and actually play,” Flaws said. “This is my fourth year and I’ve only played for one.”