DiBernardo still hanging around with Illini soccer


By Joey Figueroa

It was the third round of the 2013 NCAA tournament. The field of teams was down to 16 and Illinois was one of them. It was a special tournament run for the entire team, but for Vanessa DiBernardo, each win meant extending her career at least one more match.

That was why after the loss to Boston College that ended Illinois’ season, DiBernardo could barely get through her post-game interview without breaking down into tears.

“Last year was emotional because I was injured most of the year, so I didn’t know what was going to be my last game or not,” DiBernardo said now. 

DiBernardo thought her days as an Illini were numbered after that loss to Boston College, but luckily for her and the soccer program, she has to complete one more semester of classes, and it was a no-brainer to keep her with the team as a student assistant coach this season.

“I was in a meeting one time with Janet (Rayfield) and we were kind of talking about what was going to happen next, and I asked if maybe I could just help out with the team, and she was like, ‘Yeah, I was thinking the same thing,’?” DiBernardo said. “So it was kind of just a mutual agreement and it really worked out easily.

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    “So it’s nice to still be in this environment; it’s a great environment. I love it — I wouldn’t be back if I didn’t.”

    The two-time All-American’s illustrious career as an Illini ended with her atop the school’s all-time record books in assists (22), third all-time in goals (43) and tied for first all-time in shots (325). She earned endless awards, including Big Ten Freshman of the Year in 2010, Big Ten Midfielder of the Year in 2011, and NSCAA second-team and third-team honors in 2011 and 2012, respectively. The list goes on.

    She was a leader on the field, and current Illini who played with her are more than glad to have her around for another season.

    “It’s awesome,” junior midfielder Nicole Breece said. “She’s a great player and she has a lot of knowledge about the game, so it’s just nice to have her around to coach us a little more and gain knowledge from a girl that’s closer to our age.”

    As a student assistant coach, DiBernardo helps the staff with some of the “housekeeping” work, such as preparing itineraries and planning meals for the team’s road trips. She also practices with the team and has been able to offer years of soccer expertise to some of the younger players.

    Senior forward Jannelle Flaws views her as a model of hard work that every player should follow.

    “She’s always been a really hard worker,” Flaws said. “She’s always looking to do something bigger and something better. And I think that attitude has shown that just by working hard, you can get to certain places.”

    After what may have been the lowest of the lows in the loss to Boston College last season, DiBernardo has experienced some of the highest of the highs since.

    Her decorated collegiate career was recognized when she was drafted fourth overall in the 2014 NWSL draft by the Chicago Red Stars. The Naperville native played all 23 games for the Red Stars over the summer, starting 19 matches and finishing with three assists and one goal while playing the third most minutes on the team.

    DiBernardo said it was a difficult adjustment to the faster and more physical level of play in the pros, and she is using her time on the Illinois coaching staff to improve her play next season.

    “I’m seeing a different side of things and I get to see the behind the scenes stuff of the coaches, and it’s just a different look at how they view things,” DiBernardo said. “I’m always in a learning environment, and especially with the coaches that we have here, you’re just always taking in any information you can. I’m constantly learning from them, which is good.”

    The learning goes both ways, as DiBernardo has been a strong presence on the sidelines for the Illini and tries to offer what she has learned with the Red Stars whenever she can.

    “It’s more than being a captain and less than being a full-time coach, but it’s that role where she just gets to give her expertise,” head coach Janet Rayfield said. “I think she’s done a great job of not trying to take over the team that’s no longer hers, so to speak, but being around and available to help the players who certainly respect her.”

    After four years of coaching DiBernardo and even travelling with her to Japan to be a part of the United States under-20 women’s national team in 2012, Rayfield has developed one of the strongest bonds with DiBernardo and may be one of the happiest people to have her around just a little longer.

    “I think that when you have a player like that, and I hope it’s the same on her side of things, the longer they’re in your life, the more you learn from them and the more they learn from you and the more that relationship continues to develop,” Rayfield said. “So I think it’s a wonderful opportunity for her to be here and for us to continue to learn from each other.”

    DiBernardo’s career as a professional soccer player is just beginning and the sky’s the limit. With one season in Chicago under her belt, DiBernardo said she just wants continue playing and improving. She also wants experience overseas, and her ultimate goal is to play for the United States women’s national team.

    Rayfield doesn’t want DiBernardo to forget she always has a place to come back to in Champaign though.

    “She always knows that she has a home here where she can come and train and continue to develop,” Rayfield said. “As a professional athlete, you certainly want a place you can come home to that understands your needs and your training environment, and certainly she’ll always have a place here at this program.”

    Joey can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @joeyfigueroa3.