Minutes after the Illini were ousted from the Big Ten tournament Nov. 6, senior midfielder Vanessa DiBernardo and coach Janet Rayfield separately were asked about the possibility that the former had played her final collegiate match.
Given Illinois’ 10-8-2 record and quick quarterfinal exit, it was a legitimate query. As soon became apparent, it also was a highly emotional topic — something neither was yet ready to contemplate or acknowledge.
A speechless DiBernardo became so choked up that she temporarily excused herself from a group of reporters to try to gather herself. When she returned, no one had the heart to bring up the question again. Later, Rayfield futilely attempted not to tear up as she discussed what a privilege it’s been to coach the two-time All-American — a player now firmly on the U.S. Soccer National Team radar.
Rayfield proceeded to argue that her Illini deserved an NCAA at-large bid, and one major reason was DiBernardo’s impact that day (one goal, one assist) after missing all or most of the previous nine matches with a knee injury.
Five days later, there again might have been tears when the NCAA tournament field was revealed — the Illini watched the announcement privately; no media allowed — but if so, they no doubt were tears of joy. Among Rayfield’s other arguments — that the Big Ten was so strong this season that finishing in a tie for fifth place surely made her Illini a deserving NCAA participant — clearly resonated with the selection committee. In all, a Big Ten-record eight teams were invited into the 64-team field.
Illinois won’t be favored Saturday. Not against a 21st-ranked Cougars team with a 14-3-3 record playing on its home turf. Not against a WSU bunch that has permitted 11 goals all season and has shut out 14 opponents. But it would be a mistake to dismiss the chances of any team that includes DiBernardo — one of the greatest players in UI program history; some would argue the greatest. We know she’s not ready for her Illini career to end. We know Rayfield isn’t anywhere near ready to stop coaching her. If each gets her wish Saturday, the tears can wait for another time. DiBernardo, Rayfield and the rest of the Illini will have survived to play another day.