Illini of the Decade: #12 Ella Masar

In a career full of eye-popping numbers, no two digits are more indicative of Ella Masar’s soccer career at Illinois than the combination of “1” and “0.”

Sure, there’s 27 (career goals) or 74 (career points) or even 2 (her school rank in school history in career game-winning goals). But these numbers don’t do justice to the barriers that Masar plowed through to get where she is now.

The illustrious career that ignited a program all began with a very modest 10, as in 10 percent of a scholarship to play for the Illini.

“I was pretty much considered a recruited walk-on,” Masar said. “(Coach Janet Rayfield) made it very clear that I would have to work for what I was given.

“When (Rayfield) offered me this my senior year of high school, I was just happy to have anything,” Masar added. “To me, 10 percent was a million dollars … Regardless how big or small that number was, I was just happy to be a part of a D-I program.”

Masar would be the first to deflect credit for her ascension to coaches and training staff, but to understand Ella Masar means to fully appreciate just how much of a self-made star this gritty Urbana native truly is.

“I’ve just never seen anything like her,” former teammate Lindsey Carstens said. “She’s worked for everything she has. She came in and wasn’t the player she is today, and she’ll tell you that as well.”

Rayfield, Masar’s coach at Illinois, voiced a similar expression of the passion Masar trained with.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever had an athlete that I’ve had to sort of plan a workout schedule for so she didn’t work out too much … There was never a time when you had to ask her to do extra,” Rayfield said. “If you suggested it, recommended it, she was there. If it was something optional, she was there. She was one where you had to put the reins on and say, ‘Hey, your body can’t take this much.’”

Masar is quick to identify Rayfield as having the most profound impact on her soccer career of all her coaches. She even worked out with Rayfield in October before heading to Germany as part of the U.S. national team, where the Americans topped their archrival German squad 1-0 in friendly play.

“She wants me to do well, but she always brings me back to reality,” Masar said of Rayfield. “Not only for me, but for (all) the alumni, she’s our life coach. I can’t put it into words.”

Another number that defines Masar’s time with the Illini is 30, as in minutes she spent training after every practice in her four-year career. This spirit not only helped Masar achieve new heights in her personal game, but the attitude proved to be infectious on the team.

“She set the example, she set our standards high as a program,” Carstens said. “She didn’t care if anyone saw her doing this, it was purely for the team, purely to make her stronger. And I think it definitely affected all of us.”

This fervor for her craft helped Masar go from lowly freshman to cornerstone of the program, but it also helped her just to get to square one.

Things certainly didn’t come easy for Masar, even in a stellar high school career. An Urbana High School-record 92 career goals would tell you otherwise, but a severe leg injury her senior year threatened to take away the game she passionately loved.

Enter Douglas Kleber.

Kleber, a personal trainer who works with amateur and professional athletes in the Champaign-Urbana area, played a critical role in Masar’s development. During his time working with Masar in high school and beyond, he became a mentor to Masar, equal parts personal trainer and spiritual guide.

Faith became the focal point of Masar’s recovery process, and Masar and Kleber alike will tell you that it is what inspired Masar to continue chasing her dream.

“All too often God has to take away from us what we love, to get our attention on whom we should love,” Kleber said.

“There were times that she became so discouraged, (but) in spite of her discouragement, shook the dust off, got up, and started to train. It was progressive, and she went through a lot of tears, but she would not quit, she would just not quit.”

In a career replete with memorable moments, Masar doesn’t hesitate to point out the then-No. 15 Illini’s historic Oct. 1, 2006 win over the No. 9 Penn State Nittany Lions. The crowd of 2,667 fans assembled at Illinois Soccer and Track Stadium marked the largest crowd in Illinois soccer history. With the sea of orange on their side, Masar scored two second-half goals as the Illini dug out of an early 2-0 hole to come back for a 3-2 win, a memory that Carstens recalls fondly.

“As soon as she scored those goals, she was either jumping on someone or running around with her hands in the air,” Carstens said. “She celebrates but in a good way that (makes us say), ‘OK, let’s do it again.’ It’s definitely a pick-me-up.”

Carstens also added that Masar’s unbridled enthusiasm on the field often led her to tackle her teammates in jubilation.

“(Ella) actually always jumps on someone, to the point where she has run up and wrapped her legs around someone as she jumped on to them and actually made them fall over on the field,” Carstens said. “We always make fun of her and call her one big ball of muscle.”

This balance between seriousness and utter goofiness is what makes Masar unique. Carstens recalls a time during the duo’s senior season in which Masar exited from the team bus at Purdue’s Varsity Soccer Complex only to discover she had lost her jersey. Weeks after the game, in which she was forced to wear a team backup jersey, the bus company sent Masar a package. Inside was a blue-stained jersey that reeked of toilet disinfectant. Needless to say, Masar and Co. found the incident no less than hysterical.

It is this confluence of character traits that makes Masar the role model she is for young girls across the country, said Kleber.

“She’s been a tremendous example in many respects to a lot of people. There’s not enough good things I can say about Ella,” he said.

Rayfield agreed and said she lauds Masar for her composure amidst the scrutiny she faced as her public profile grew, one that still grows today as she continues her career with the Chicago Red Stars of the Women’s Professional Soccer league.

“I think Ella was always one of those people who knew that when she stepped into any arena, she was representing herself, her family, her school … Now the spotlight has gotten bigger and bigger and it’s only magnified what she’s already done.”