On top of the world



By Steve Contorno

Ella Masar is every bit the American Dream.

It’s cliche, to say the least, and maybe her story is as well. Small-town girl with the odds stacked against her goes on to lead Team USA to a championship. It’s so abnormal it’s become normal in the sports world. But to hear her tell the story, and listen to her coach describe Masar’s path from the lucky local girl to national hero – there’s nothing trite about it.

“Ella’s a fierce competitor,” Illinois head soccer coach Janet Rayfield said. “There’s isn’t much that can stand between her and what she wants to accomplish.”

The former Illini soccer player’s career came to a peak July 21 when she scored two goals in the Nordic Cup finals for the U.S. U-23 National Team in what was a 3-0 statement victory against Germany. And if you hadn’t known Masar’s history – that the Urbana native was given just a 10-percent scholarship to play for Illinois, that she started only two games her freshman year and two years later was named Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year, or that she called Rayfield crying after her first day at the U-21 U.S. women’s camp last year, thinking “this isn’t what I signed up for” – you couldn’t possibly understand what she had gone through to get to that point.

And for Rayfield, you couldn’t understand what it’s been like to watch her get there.

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“I don’t have kids so I can’t liken it to pride of your own flesh and blood, but it’s that sense of pride that I have for Ella,” Rayfield said. “You get a warm sense that some things are right in this world.”

The bond between Masar and Rayfield goes beyond an athlete-coach relationship. Masar said she considers Rayfield a “mentor and a friend for life,” and it’s obvious the affection is mutual. Rayfield fawns over Masar’s work ethic, claiming “I haven’t met an athlete that has dedicated herself like she has,” which means a lot coming from a player who had her UNC scoring record broken by soccer superstar Mia Hamm.

Masar’s dedication was never more obvious than last season when a mix of hamstring injuries and bone bruises kept her from carrying the team on her shoulders, as she had so often done for the past two seasons. She found a way to play, missing only one game, even though it meant limping between whistles and taping on ice bags after games and practices. It’s that mentality that has lifted her to rising star status.

“Everyone’s working hard,” Masar said. “Once you stop working hard, you lose everything.”

And Masar isn’t done yet. Rayfield testifies that Masar’s late development means she hasn’t come close to reaching her full potential, a scary thought considering what she just accomplished on the international level. Though she’ll be a spectator as the U.S. senior national team takes center stage at the Olympics in Beijing next week, Masar already has her sights set on making the next World Cup team in 2011. The odds will be against her once again, and Masar – listed at 5-foot-5 with her spikes on standing on a hill – knows it. But then again, she’s known that all along.

“You gotta prove everyone wrong,” Masar said. “What keeps me going is one, my family and friends supporting me, and two, proving everyone wrong. I want to prove that you don’t have to come from money or a big city like Chicago to make it in soccer.

“I didn’t come this far not to have that hope (of playing for the senior national team).”

No matter what comes next for Masar, the life-time Illini will always bleed orange and blue. Part of why Masar’s story is so touching for Rayfield is because she wasn’t the only person that is rooting for Masar to make it – an entire town is behind her.

“There’s such a sense of communal pride seeing her achieve what she worked so hard for,” Rayfield said. “Her coaches, her family, everyone’s so proud of her.”

And for Masar, she will always carry a piece of Illinois over heart, quite literally in fact.

“We would get Illinois sports bras with an ‘I’ on it; I still wear mine for big games,” Masar said. “It’s always going to be Illinois for me. And I hope to keep getting sports bras with the ‘I’s on them so I can keep representing Illinois.”

Masar will rejoin the Washington Freedom of the W-League as it attempts to win a conference championship Thursday. It’s only fitting that her journey has taken her through America’s capital, though, it might end in Germany during the 2011 FIFA World Cup.

“I didn’t think I’d be able to see the world like this,” Masar said. “I’ve had so many blessings I can’t begin to count. You look around and see all these unbelievable players, your country is on your jersey and you hear your anthem in other countries – you got to think this is the best it can get.”