Rayfield looks beyond 100

Illinois players listen to head coach Janet Rayfield during halftime at a game on Sept. 4, at Illinois Soccer Stadium. Illinois defeated Western Illinois 3-0. ME Online

By Steve Contorno

Janet Rayfield traded in her All-American uniform for an all-business suit long ago; baby blue for khaki. Instead of running inside the white-framed box, she paces the sidelines for 90 minutes. And no longer is she scoring goals, but rather she’s teaching others how to score. Back then she knew how to win soccer games. She still does.

As a player at North Carolina, Rayfield led the Tar Heels to 79 wins and two national championships, including the first ever NCAA women’s soccer national championship in 1982.

Since becoming a head coach in 1993, Rayfield has tallied 101 wins, 56 of them coming with the Illini. Her 100th came last Friday in a 4-0 victory at home against Syracuse. Being the worrier she is, Rayfield didn’t think the game was secured until the third goal was scored. Even then, thoughts of reaching the century mark didn’t come until after the game was over.

“It was about the time the game ended where I said, ‘Oh, that’s great, I’ve got 100. Now I’ve got to focus on 101,'” Rayfield said. “It’s a milestone, but there’s so many more things I want for this team to accomplish. One hundred would have been meaningless without 101.

“You feel fortunate that you’ve had great institutions to work for, great players to coach and a great staff to work with in order to accomplish that. But as a coach, you’re only as great as your next game.”

For someone who seemed to be so immersed in soccer and so passionately connected with it, it’s difficult to imagine soccer not being a part of Rayfield’s life. Maybe it’s because the sport has grown with Rayfield. Before she came to North Carolina, women’s soccer wasn’t a varsity sport at most universities. The NCAA didn’t even take it over until 1982.

But women’s soccer has grown in ways that Rayfield thought were unimaginable. And while she thinks steps need to be taken to solidify its future – mainly by resurrecting a professional league for women – Rayfield acknowledged soccer has taken incredible steps for women in sports.

“So much has happened in women’s soccer during my career,” Rayfield said. “The 1996 Olympic gold team, the 1999 World Cup team. To sit at the Rose Bowl for the 1999 World Cup with 90,000 people, I just never thought that women’s soccer would get to that point during my lifetime.

“I always thought participation numbers would grow because it’s such an enjoyable sport to play. But I think the public appreciation for the athletes that are involved in the sport is tremendous.”

Rayfield didn’t begin playing soccer until she was 12. Her family had just moved to Texas and her mother signed up all seven of her children for a new program called “soccer” at the local YMCA, hoping they would make friends. Rayfield fondly remembered weekends with her family, spending the entire day playing youth soccer. Immediately, Rayfield discovered she had an inborn ability to find the net.

“My greatest strength (as a player) was a natural instinct to score goals,” Rayfield said. “That’s something from when I first started playing the game and why I stuck with the sport and why I was successful.”

Living in the Dallas-Fort Worth area allowed Rayfield to flourish within a sport that many women didn’t have an opportunity to play. At the time, Texas was one of the few areas that women’s soccer was booming. She was able to play on various club teams and have coaches that impacted her career as a player and coach.

“I was very fortunate that the first non-‘Y’ team I played for was coached by an Italian man, and there weren’t too many good soccer coaches around at the time,” Rayfield said. “He obviously knew the game and was passionate about it and took me to see a World Cup game on closed circuit TV. That’s when I became a soccer fan.”

Her success carried over to the collegiate level where Rayfield was captain of the Tar Heels all four years, tallying 223 points, including 93 goals – which account for two points each – and 37 assists.

She left North Carolina as the school’s all-time

leading goal scorer, a record that stood until Mia Hamm, arguably the greatest female athlete of all time, scored 103 goals throughout her career from 1989-1993.

North Carolina head coach Anson Dorrance, who has compiled 15 more national titles since ’82, coached Rayfield at UNC. He attributed much of the program’s success during the transition from an early varsity team to the “juggernaut” it became to Rayfield’s contributions.

“When you turn a team of walk-ons into a team of mostly scholarship athletes, there are going to be chemistry issues between those walk-ons who were starters at the time and the people who they thought were taking their job,” Dorrance said. “I couldn’t think of a better individual to lead the team at this time than Janet. She did a lot of coaching as an undergraduate when she had to console a player who lost their starting role or explain why a recruit was coming in to take their spot.

“Of all the players I’ve had, she had the most training as a coach and she’s brought that to the next level.”

After her time at North Carolina, Rayfield was practically bribed into her first coaching job. The director of a youth club in Dallas offered Rayfield a position as a head coach, however, as a college graduate in computer science, she thought it more appropriate to find a job first. The director, who happened to work for Texas Instruments, set Rayfield up on several job interviews. After taking a job, Rayfield felt “compelled” to coach his team. Even then, she only thought of it as a hobby.

“At that point in time I didn’t want it to be a profession, but something that I enjoyed,” Rayfield said. “But there came a point in my life where I was passionate enough about this to make it into a profession.”

In 1993, Rayfield became head coach of Arkansas after spending three years as an assistant. Five years later, Rayfield left the Razorbacks and became an assistant at Illinois.

After head coach Tricia Taliaferro left to pursue other coaching opportunities, Rayfield was given the reins. Since then she has built Illinois into a national title contender.

“She’s brought in some great players and has worked hard to develop them,” said Paula Faherty, a fifth-year senior midfielder on Rayfield’s Illini. “The junior and senior class is just 110 times better on and around the ball than when I saw them when they were freshmen. Janet really coaches all aspects of the game effectively.”

Part of Rayfield’s ability to coach comes from the trust she developed between her and her players. She says trust is the greatest attribute a coach can have.

“Because it’s not a sport where you call timeout, design a play and have an immediate impact on the game,” Rayfield said. “It’s really a sense of developing a trust in your players and a trust in what you’ve done on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday that will allow them to make the right decisions on Friday and Sunday.”

Faherty said the team trusts Rayfield because she’s never led them wrong before.

“Sometimes the outlook may not look so bright,” she said. “But we always trust her and that’s why no one ever gives up on this team.”

Right now her players are trusting that the difficult schedule that Rayfield is putting them through will help them in the long run. The team currently finds themselves with a 3-3 record after tough losses to Missouri, Texas A&M; and Texas, all ranked opponents. However, the Illini bounced back and after putting away Syracuse, they went on to top an undefeated top-ranked Auburn team and regained a spot in the Top 25. Rayfield insisted the team is learning from their mistakes in those losses and is building toward what few programs not named North Carolina dare to whisper: a national championship.

“This program is on track to win a national championship, and that is our goal, and we want to compete for one on a regular basis,” Rayfield said.

As for the future, Illinois seems to have found its women to bring stability and prominence to their soccer program. In just its tenth year of existence, Illinois women’s soccer has gained national recognition by both coaches and recruits as a top institution. Most of that can be attributed to Rayfield, who is too passionate about the sport to give up before anything less that a national championship is achieved.

Rayfield may have been able to bring North Carolina a championship through her footwork and leg strength, but it’s her knowledge of the sport and ability to pass it on to her players that will bring one to Illinois. Already coaches around the country are seeing what Rayfield has done for her program in such a short amount of time. And some of her old mentors couldn’t have been more proud.

“We were both at a tournament in San Francisco playing the same teams and I had a chance to watch the Illini,” Dorrance said. “I found myself cheering for them like I would my own team. I was impressed by how her team has played and how they handle the ball. You could see Janet’s hand in building that ship. I’m very proud of what she’s done.”

Rayfield’s success may be the product of what she’s learned from some of the best.

It may be that she used to play at the level she expects from her players.

Or maybe it’s because she gets her coaching advice from a rugby book called “Developing Decision Makers.”

Whatever the reason, Rayfield has continued to win soccer games at the college level, even if now it’s with her voice and not her legs.