CHAMPAIGN — Janet Rayfield has fielded the question multiple times this season. From the media. From coaching colleagues. From inquiring minds who want to know:
“Who is this kid and where did she come from?”
The subject of curiosity is Jannelle Flaws, who has spent this college soccer season piling up goals and commanding attention in her sport after seemingly coming from out of nowhere.
And that’s an understandable reaction, considering that this University of Illinois forward had spent two of the previous three seasons on the sideline following separate knee surgeries. In the one season she played during that time, Flaws was primarily a reserve.
But if the redshirt junior had spent most of her college career overlooked or in the background, she now is squarely on the front burner, scoring goals at a heated pace and busy making the acquaintance of folks who follow the sport and want to know how Flaws got from there to here.
Considering the circumstances, even her coach is taken aback by the degree of success Flaws is experiencing.
“It’s really hard to even fathom a player doing what she’s done,” said Rayfield, in her 12th season at the Illini helm and a soccer coach since 1983. “Certainly, a player coming back from two ACL surgeries and being a significant impact on a Big Ten team (is impressive).
“But to talk about someone who’s leading the Big Ten Conference in scoring in a year when it’s probably as strong as it has ever been and (being) in the top five in the nation in terms of goals scored. Setting a school record. It’s phenomenal.”
Particularly, Rayfield says, given Flaws’ pre-2013 college soccer resume.
“To go where she has been in her career here to that level of success and that level of accomplishment, I don’t know that you could compare that to anything that’s happened in my coaching career,” she said.
Certainly, it’s been an incomparable performance by Illini historical standards. The program record for goals — 18 by Emily Brown — had stood since 1999 until Flaws broke it Oct. 27 in a victory against Michigan.
Flaws finished the regular season with 20 goals, which ranks in a tie for second nationally.
Again, context is everything with Rayfield when she assesses what the persistent Flaws has finally achieved in a much-interrupted college career.
“To have that kind of a pure goal scorer ... is sort of a coach’s dream,” she said. “To have that pure goal scorer be someone who’s gone through that kind of injury I think is even more phenomenal.”
Flaws’ breakout season couldn’t have come at a better time. Nothing has come easy this season for an Illini team forced to deal with its share of injuries, most notably to two-time All-American and USA Soccer up-and-comer Vanessa DiBernardo.
This Illinois team needed the kind of volume scoring that the 2013 Big Ten Forward of the Year produced. Rayfield made that point this week prior to the start of the eight-team Big Ten tournament that the UI is hosting but nearly didn’t reach.
“We’re not here without Jannelle Flaws in the way that Penn State’s not here without Maya Hayes,” said Rayfield, referencing the Nittany Lions’ senior and two-time Big Ten Forward of the Year. “Certainly, we have players who could step up to the plate, but to score 20 goals, it would take a lot of different people.”
Flaws’ one-of-a-kind season might trace its roots to a meeting she had with Rayfield last summer. The Glenview native never considered quitting the sport, but Flaws admitted then: “I still love it, but I don’t know if it’s as much as I did before.”
That realization, Flaws recalled this week, shook her.
“Soccer’s always been something I love to do,” she said. “It’s been my favorite thing. So when I thought it might not be (that) any more, I think it was more scary.”
Given the repeat injury to her right knee and the surgeries and the physically and mentally taxing rehabilitations and the seasons spent on the sideline, what Flaws said struck Rayfield as perfectly understandable. This player has been through a lot.
In response, the Illini coach simply encouraged Flaws to do the best she could and to try to have fun with a sport that surely had been fun for her before injury twice intervened.
Flaws ran with that advice and hasn’t looked back since. In the process, the former all-stater from Glenbrook South rediscovered the confident and accomplished player who had racked up 145 career goals in high school.
Ask Flaws if she’s surprised by her success this season and it’s clear that’s not a word she would choose.
“I’ve always known I can do it, but I think I kind of doubted myself a little in between, especially because of the injuries,” the 2011 Big Ten All-Freshman Team pick said. “Maybe not (expecting) 20 goals, but I don’t know if I ever really set a limit or an expectation.
“I think that’s part of the player I’ve always been is I’ve been confident that I know I can be dangerous in the final third (of the field).”
It’s taken a while, but plenty of Illini opponents now know just how dangerous. Her veteran coach is just glad Flaws is on her side.
“I’m not sure that I’ve coached a goal scorer like Jannelle — period,” Rayfield said.
Illini in a familiar spot
Jeff Huth’s Illini-centric random thought on the Big Ten tournament:
Although the Illini will play their tournament opener today, in reality they’ve been in tournament mode since their second-to-last regular season match. Illinois needed to win its last two to keep its season alive, so the mental transition to a win-or-else postseason should be seamless for this group. No doubt it’s been an up-and-down season for Janet Rayfield’s team, but there are reasons to be optimistic about its chances this week. Getting All-American Vanessa DiBernardo back on the field — even in a minutes-limited capacity — should provide an emotional lift. Even at less than 100 percent, she’s capable of a difference-making impact. Illini veterans have experienced — and have come to expect — success in this setting, reaching the title match the last two years and winning it all in 2011. Illinois is at home, and its record at Illinois Soccer Field this season (7-2) strongly suggests that indeed is an advantage. And the Illini are led by a coach who typically finds a way to get the most out of her teams in this event; under Rayfield, Illinois is 11-6-4 all time in the Big Ten tournament. No guarantees, mind you, but it certainly wouldn’t be a shocker if the Illini still are playing soccer come Sunday.