Illini of the Decade: #13 Emily Zurrer

Janet Rayfield has a memorable early impression of Emily Zurrer.

As the Illinois soccer head coach best remembers, she was in Houston sometime in the summer of 2004, taking in some junior national competition. Zurrer, a Vancouver native who played for Team Canada, had already committed to play soccer for Rayfield at Illinois.

Before departing, the national teams gathered for a party. After entering the party late, Rayfield recalls seeing members from several different national teams crowded around a few people. Curious as to what everyone was observing and laughing about, Rayfield strolled over to find several players teaching the Japanese national team how to dance — American style. And right in the middle of all the commotion, leading the way?

Zurrer, of course.

It was then that Rayfield knew she had someone who could be “the center of attention.”

What she didn’t know at the time, but would find out over the course of the next five years, was that she had a four-year starter and centerpiece for her defense, a team leader and a three-time All-American.

Whether it’s Christian Michner’s tale of Zurrer nabbing the last yogurt parfait from him during his interview for the assistant coaching position that he currently holds at Illinois, or former teammate and roommate Jackie Santacaterina’s analysis of Zurrer’s private concerts — “She’s a terrible, terrible singer, but she’d belt it out” — it seems everyone in the Illinois soccer family has a funny story of Zurrer that he or she cherishes.

But it was Zurrer’s abilities on the field, not her entertainer abilities off of it, that made her one of elite players in the game during her collegiate career. Ask those who watched her play the most what made her so great, and they are quick to point out two qualities: her athleticism and her composure.

“She had an amazing ability to cover a lot of ground quickly,” Michner said. “She was extremely good in the air, so she was able to battle for every ball … and was a real presence on both sides of the ball in the air.”

More importantly, however, was that Zurrer was always “cool, calm and collected,” on the field, as Santacaterina put it. Former teammate and fellow defender Danielle Kot, who played two seasons with Zurrer, said one of the most important things her elder, Zurrer, taught her was to never get “rattled or frustrated” on the field.

“She was our Superwoman. She would calmly get us out of any emergency situation and handle it with composure every time,” Kot said.

Rayfield had similar thoughts on the back-line wall who led an Illinois defense that gave up just 0.83 goals per game en route to the Sweet 16 in 2008.

“I used to tease her about always being able to put on a Superman cape and solve a breakdown or solve a problem, because it’s probably the arena in a game where she’s at her best, is when things seem to be chaotic or things seem to be broken down or there seems to be everybody on the sideline is going ‘Ahhh, something’s about to happen.’ And all of a sudden she swoops in and solves it,” Rayfield said.

Much of the composure that Zurrer displayed was gained from the years she spent playing and training with the Canadian national team, first on junior squads before eventually starting in the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. Zurrer was a member of U-16, U-17 and U-19 Canadian teams that competed internationally, and she attended many national team camps.

In fact, it was Zurrer’s experience with the national team in 2004 that delayed the start of her Illinois career. Originally planning to enroll in school and play for the Illini in the fall of 2004, Zurrer instead trained with the Canadian national team and competed in the U-19 World Championships in Thailand that fall. She then enrolled at Illinois in the spring of 2005.

It was valuable experience that helped Zurrer become a leader in Rayfield’s eyes.

“You think about someone coming in with the kind of experiences that she had had playing international games, traveling internationally … she had just been in a lot of situations that gave her some experiences that she used to help her lead,” Rayfield said.

While it may seem odd for a Canadian on the West Coast to find her way to the Midwest, Zurrer knew Illinois was the right school after her campus visit.

“There’s nothing else I could really say except that it felt right,” Zurrer said. “The environment, the team, the people, especially the coaches, it just felt right … I just totally had a connection with the coaches.”

Zurrer’s visit set up memories she will never forget. The Illini qualified for the NCAA Tournament in each of Zurrer’s four years at Illinois, and the squad made Sweet 16 runs in 2006 and 2008.

“One of my favorite games was my sophomore year against Penn State, they were our main rivals … We were down 2-0 at halftime and feeling a little bit deflated, I guess. I don’t remember exactly what Janet said at halftime, but it must have worked because we came out in the second half and rebounded to score three goals,” Zurrer said, referring to a 3-2 win over the No. 9 Nittany Lions in front of a school-record home crowd of 2,667 on Oct. 1, 2006.

“It was an amazing feeling,” Zurrer added.

Such memories are still fresh in the mind of Zurrer, who is currently playing professionally in Germany. Hopefully, memories of Zurrer will always be just as fresh in the minds of others. After all, it’s hard to measure the value of defenders like Zurrer who lack many of the stats that fill up box scores and record books.

“(I want people) to remember me by being a really tough competitor, never being afraid to put my body in front of the ball or risk my body for anything, as long as it meant winning the ball or stopping an attack, and just being a large presence on the soccer field in the back,” Zurrer said.

But for those who recognize true greatness, Zurrer will always be remembered.

“She represents everything we look for in student-athletes here … She’ll always be one of the best players to play for the Illinois program, and we hope to always try to bring in players who are in her mold,” Michner said.