Soccer coach visits familiar ground for UNC match

 

 

By Cody Westerlund

Twenty-six years ago, a young soccer star graced the field at the University of North Carolina. By the time she had left, she led the school in goals scored, won two national titles and left behind a foundation for a program that has dominated women’s college soccer. On Saturday, Janet Rayfield will return to Chapel Hill, N.C., but this time she will coach her Illinois soccer squad against her alma mater and top-seeded North Carolina Tar Heels in the NCAA Tournament’s Round of 16.

Staring down the sideline at Rayfield will be her former coach, the legendary Anson Dorrance, who has built the Tar Heels women’s soccer program from the ground up and directed his teams to 18 national titles in the past 26 years. Rayfield was a centerpiece on the 1982 team, which won the first ever women’s soccer NCAA Tournament.

“Anson and I have a unique Carolina experience in terms of being there at the beginning and seeing the program become what it is today,” Rayfield said. “Anytime you share building something, it’s a special relationship. It wasn’t a program prior to my freshman year.”

Not only was Rayfield a standout in her career from 1979-82 at North Carolina, she was Dorrance’s first ever recruit.

“There was no real women’s soccer back then,” Dorrance said, referring to women’s soccer not yet being recognized as an NCAA sport. “It was a leap of faith for her to come here. Unquestionably, she is one the great early pioneers of the American soccer game.”

Dorrance still cherishes what his four-year captain has meant to his program.

“My respect and affection for Janet is without limits,” Dorrance said. “Janet was the first great player we brought in, and she set the standard for leadership and the way we train. The stuff she did back then is still a part of us today.”

Both coaches expressed mixed emotions for the game and said they would rather meet in the Final Four. Dorrance said “the last team we want to play in the tournament is a team that one of our alumni coaches.” Rayfield, however, added that the Illini built a program to compete against the best.

Just as Rayfield was important to Dorrance’s program at UNC, Dorrance has been a vital influence in Rayfield’s life. She said some of her coaching qualities can be traced her former coach.

Most significant, however, was that Dorrance created a program that furthered the idea that it was acceptable for women to compete.

“During that time, it became OK for me to compete,” Rayfield said. “That was something I had battled with for a long time. I got myself in an environment where competition was encouraged and celebrated, and that was an important transition for me.”

Although Rayfield reserves a soft spot in her heart for the Tar Heels, she is not bringing it up with her players.

“She told us that this was about us, no matter what people said about her school,” sophomore forward Jordan Hilbrands said. “This is our team, our game, putting the emphasis on the teams playing.”

Regardless of the outcome of the game, this weekend will be something Rayfield can look back on forever.

“To have the opportunity for my two legacies to overlap is definitely a unique experience and one that I’m going to enjoy,” Rayfield said.