Kickin’ it around the world



By Steve Contorno

The probability of Ella Masar and Emily Zurrer ever playing soccer together wasn’t high.

Masar, a hometown product with as much hustle as heart, was looking to continue her post-high school career away from home.

Zurrer, whose nickname “EZ” could describe how she makes defense look, hails from across the border in Vancouver.

As fate would have it, the two made it to the University of Illinois – with pit stops across the world along the way.

Masar and Zurrer are the cream of the Big Ten. Two of the conference’s leading players at their positions – forward and defense, respectively – both were named Big Ten Player of the Year in 2006. And both are leading the Illini to an impressive follow-up campaign to last season’s round of sixteen finish at nationals. But the two bring the Illini beyond what they’ve learned at the college level, contributing international experience gained playing for their respective national teams.

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“The best way to get better as players is to go against players that are better than you,” Zurrer said. “Bringing that mindset back to the team has probably made us stronger.”

Getting to Illinois

Zurrer, now a junior, always knew she wanted to come to the States to play soccer, the only question was where. An international athlete since playing with Canada’s U-16 national team, Illinois was last on a long list of visits during her recruiting tours of the United States. She immediately fell in love with the school.

“It just felt right – the team, the coaches, the atmosphere,” Zurrer said of Illinois.

Illinois didn’t feel right immediately for Masar. Even if she wanted to play for the Illini, the odds weren’t in the relatively unknown prospect’s favor. And though Masar is an Urbana native, she was looking to get away from the school that everyone in her family had attended. But being a local recruit — “The only reason I got here,” Masar said – head coach Janet Rayfield gave her a shot, offering a partial scholarship. When it came down to it, Masar couldn’t refuse the opportunity.

“I could’ve gone to DePaul and been the bigger person on campus, but they couldn’t make the NCAA (Tournament),” Masar said. “Then I came here and Janet said, ‘All right, I’ll give you a 10 percent ride, but you’re going to have to earn every minute.’ It just kind of worked out.”

Rayfield never second guessed her decision to bring Masar, now a senior, on board.

“Ella has two things that convinced me to give her an offer,” Rayfield said. “One is it doesn’t take long to recognize her athletic talent. You always say you can’t teach speed and she obviously has that quality. And then when you sit an athlete down in your office, you can see something in their eyes that says, ‘This kid can compete and won’t back up from anything,’ you know they have the tools to play at this level. She had that. It was never a risk to bring her on.”

Masar quickly began to “earn every minute,” playing in 24 games during her freshman year. By her sophomore season, she had worked her way into the starting lineup for 10 games, tallying nine points. Zurrer found playing time more quickly – the international play having prepared her for the college level – starting in all but one game her freshman year. The 2005 season ended with Masar and Zurrer playing a combined 44 games and a guarantee that both would be staples of the Illini program in 2006.

The breakout season

But things changed.

Zurrer wasn’t in the starting lineup to begin the ’06 campaign. Once again, Zurrer’s homeland called for her to take part in international competition, this time for the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Championships in Moscow. The trip forced her to miss several of the Illini’s games, including a 5-0 loss to Missouri. Coming back to the team after the season had already started was an adjustment for Zurrer.

“People joked that I was lucky to miss preseason,” Zurrer said, “but I would much rather have been there with the team.”

But Zurrer rejoined the Illini and the team began to click – as did the play of both Zurrer and Masar. In week three, Masar served the ball on a free kick that Zurrer headed in to give the Illini a 1-0 victory against then-No. 13 Auburn. It was one of Masar’s nine assists on the season, which would turn out to be the third most in the Big Ten. Zurrer’s efforts doubled on the back end, leading the Illini to their third of 12 shutouts. The two were just starting to reach their potential.

As conference and national accolades poured in for the two rising stars, the team continued to improve as well. At the end of the conference season, Illinois was second in the Big Ten, posting an 8-2-0 conference record. By the time the Big Ten Tournament came around, Masar and Zurrer had impressed enough of the conference coaches to snag the highest honor for their positions. Though the team came up second to Penn State in the conference tournament, the Illini were a lock to make the big dance, going all the way to the third round before getting knocked out by Florida State in a 1-0 loss.

International success

Following the 2006 season and All-America honors for both players, it was obvious Zurrer would once again be playing at a higher level.

Masar, however, didn’t know if she would be invited to train with the nation’s top players. But Masar, always the overachieving underdog, got the invite to join the first ever U-21 U.S. women’s camp in January. Masar’s stay with the U-21 team continued, earning one of 18 spots to compete with the team in the Nordic Cup in July.

“The competition is amazing and it’s something any soccer player works for to play on a national team,” Masar said. “I still can’t believe I went. It’s so much faster and a lot harder. That first time you get a ball and you don’t turn right away, you’re going to get hit and you don’t get up as fast as you would like.”

The United States went on to win the Nordic Cup, but Masar’s summer outside the country didn’t end, or begin, there. For eight games between May and July, Masar played with the Vancouver Whitecaps of the W-League.

Recruiting Masar to play with the Whitecaps was none other than Zurrer.

Zurrer, who had been with the Whitecaps for three seasons, submitted Masar’s name to head coach Bob Birada, and Birada gave Masar a shot. He wasn’t disappointed.

“Ella’s a player with so much intensity and athletic ability,” Birada said. “She had a great impact on the team and I hope to have her back.”

Birada admitted Masar took a while to learn the style of play on that level. But once she did she was a force, finishing second on the team with five assists.

“She’s a dominating athlete,” Birada said. “She’s such a scary player and I’m glad I don’t have to play against her.”

While playing for the Whitecaps, Masar stayed with Zurrer in Vancouver. It was a role reversal for the two teammates. Since joining the Illini, Zurrer assimilated to life in Illinois: the flat landscape, hearing the U.S. anthem (which she proudly claims to know all the words to – even if it’s taken her three years, Masar pointed out), among other things. But it was Masar’s turn to see the “prettiest place on earth” (the one thing she’ll “give to Canadians”) and hear games kick off with “O, Canada.”

“She comes here and experiences our world, no one really goes up there and experiences hers,” Masar said. “It was nice to see how hard she trains and how much work she does and all her family and friends up there.”

In Canada, Masar was the odd man out and filled the role of the “dumb American.” Back in the U.S. things are different.

“Usually me and Kristy (Weeks) are the outcasts and the minority,” Zurrer said of her Canadian teammate. “We made jokes that it was nice to be the majority for once.”

Back home

While Masar and Zurrer’s adventures in Canada and worldwide bring memories of less-than-gourmet cooking and Masar learning what a mountain is (an inside joke among the team), it’s their experience with physical, fast-paced play that they have brought back to the program.

“We got to play together all last year and then all summer against tough teams and I think we both know how each other play and that has been good on the field for us,” Zurrer said.

Though Zurrer has been with the Whitecaps for three years, Birada was surprised at the strides she took playing on a difficult stage.

“‘Em’ had a real big step forward as a player,” Birada said. “She gained a whole bunch of confidence and developed a new readiness in her defense.”

Rayfield saw a change in Masar’s game, as well.

“The international play has matured her,” Rayfield said. “It has opened her eyes to see she can play different roles and it’s broadened her as a player and helped us as a team.”

Whatever they’ve taken away from playing against the best in the world, it’s benefited Illinois. Masar is defending her conference offensive player of the year award vigorously, scoring five goals in just seven games.

Zurrer, the Rayfield-described “safety net” and “superman” of the backline, has led the defense to four shutouts and a solid 5-2-0 record.

While both are on the Mac Herman Trophy watch list for the best player in college soccer, no matter what the two have accomplished as individuals, for Illinois and playing internationally, in unison Masar and Zurrer say the team has one thing left to accomplish: a championship.

Masar quickly corrected that.

“Two championships … no, three championships,” she said referring to the Big Ten regular season and tournament titles as well as the national championship. “And with how good this team is playing, it’s definitely achievable.”

As a senior, it would be Masar’s last chance to be part of a national championship team. After college, Masar, as well as Zurrer, hope to return to play on the senior national team.

Though their paths have brought them together as teammates at multiple levels, don’t be surprised to one day see them as international opponents in the future.