Three soccer players bring pro experience to 2011 season

This past summer, most of the Illinois soccer players trained individually.

Three of them, however, got to the opportunity to play professionally.

Senior Julie Ewing, junior Shayla Mutz and sophomore Vanessa DiBernardo spent their summers playing for the Chicago Red Stars, a professional women’s soccer team founded in 2007 that plays at Toyota Park, also home to the Chicago Fire, but is currently withdrawn from the WPS. The Illini didn’t know they would play for the Red Stars until just before the 2010-11 school year ended.

“I actually didn’t know I was playing with them,” Ewing said. “Rory Dames was my coach for club and he asked me what I was doing over the summer and I told him that I was playing for him. A couple of weeks before going home in May, I found out that I would be playing for the Red Stars. That was the team that he was going to be coaching.”

Transitioning from collegiate level to professional level competition was a hard adjustment at first, but DiBernardo said she was thankful for the experience and it opened her eyes to the different types of players.

“At first it was hard, but it was a really good learning experience because I got to play with people I had never played with before,” DiBernardo said. “I got to see different styles of play.”

Being thrown into a mix of older, more experienced players was intimidating at first for Mutz, but after becoming comfortable with her new teammates, she adapted to the aggressive level of play.

“There were a lot of older players on the team,” Mutz said. “I was playing with people who were as old as 27 and some that play overseas. It was different but I really liked it a lot.”

With the high level of competition, the Illini were happy to have each other’s company over the summer, but for Ewing, playing with athletes she has looked up to throughout her career as a soccer player was the highlight.

“It was such an awesome experience and I am so thankful,” Ewing said. “A lot of the girls I had seen play in the past or had grown up watching them play, and to actually be on the field playing with them was kind of surreal. Elise Weber, Jackie (Santacaterina) who obviously played here, Michele Weissenhofer and Kara Kabellis are those types of players that I have always watched play and then I was playing alongside of them.”

Rory Dames, her coach for her hometown soccer club Eclipse, and Illinois head coach Janet Rayfield have similar coaching styles, which helped ease Mutz’s transition from one to the other.

“Rory is a really good coach and he taught me a lot of things,” Mutz said. “More about how to go at people and take people on more, which is something Janet and I try to work on too.”

Now a senior, Ewing wants to finish her Illinois career strong, but more important to her as a player is appreciating the opportunities she has been given and being an inspiration to youth.

“I learned to appreciate the organization I was a part of,” Ewing said. “The Red Stars was awesome to be a part of and our owner took such good care of us. He just made it about providing whatever he could for us so that we could be something for young girls to look up to.

“That is definitely the same kind of platform we have here at Illinois. I just learned to appreciate that more and really soak it up. Stay after for autographs if you need to and take whatever pictures they ask you to but most importantly be a role model to younger girls.”