Top Illini of Title IX: No. 9 — Vanessa DiBernardo

Editor’s note: June 23 marks the 40-year anniversary of the passing of Title IX, a resolution that sought to stop gender discrimination in educational activities; athletics was one of those programs most affected. In honor of the 40-year anniversary, The Daily Illini is recognizing the athletes that have forwarded female athletics in the wake of Title IX’s passing. The Daily Illini summer staff sat down and sifted through a list of more than 30 nominees to name and order the top 9 female athletes of the past 40 years in terms of cultivating excellence for women’s sports at Illinois. Check out next week’s issue for Nos. 6-4.

Vanessa DiBernardo is young.

Heading into her junior year, the midfielder often described as shy and smiley is an emerging star for the Illinois soccer team that is coming off of back-to-back Big Ten Championships.

Though young, there’s a possibility that the Naperville, Ill., native will leave the University being the best soccer player in school history.

She is No. 5 in career goals, No. 5 in career points and No. 6 in career shots: DiBernardo has two more years to cement her name in the top spot of each of those categories

She isn’t worried about the records, or even knows which ones are in striking distance.

“I just focus on playing my best and contributing what I can to have our team be playing its best as well,” DiBernardo said in an email while training in Japan with the U.S National Team.

Described by teammate and roommate Megan Pawloski, junior in AHS as “the most humble person you’ll ever meet,” DiBernardo isn’t the biggest fan of having the spotlight shone only on her. She recognizes that soccer is a team sport and tries to keep the team aspect in it as much as possible.

“I think it was her freshman year when she scored four goals in a game. She just wanted people to stop talking about it because she would just rather have the team win more than anything. When she scores it just happens, but she just wants our team to do well,” Pawloski said.

Starting soccer at the age of four, DiBernardo was coached by her father. Angelo DiBernardo played at Indiana and professionally with the New York Cosmos. She credits much to her father’s work on her, stating she is more of a technical player because “that is something my dad emphasized when I was younger.”

Entering college, Vanessa DiBernardo wanted to stay within the Big Ten. It was when she visited Illinois that she said it felt right and the fact that it was in-state was a bonus for her.

It has been a perfect relationship since.

This past season, DiBernardo led the team in every offensive statistic. Coming off a year where she was to both the First-Team All-Big Ten for the second time and the Second-Team All-American. She will also be playing for the U.S. National Team at the FIFA U-20 World Cup in Japan in August. While crediting her father for getting her into the game, it was her family that encouraged her to keep playing.

“(My father) had my sister and I start playing when we were young,” DiBernardo said. “I have never really thought about quitting. My family has definitely helped me throughout the years. They are very supportive and come to all of the games they can. Staying in-state to go to school and play soccer has allowed my family to come to most of my games, and I really enjoy having them there to support me.”

With a big freshman year, being named Illini Female Newcomer of the Year and Big Ten Freshman of the Year, DiBernardo made a name for herself right away.

Recent graduate Julie Ewing said she never considered DiBernardo to be a freshman.

“I think she just came in and can get the job done and kind of help build the program,” Ewing said. “She has a lot of goals and a lot of attention and hype, which is awesome, and it’s also good for all the players around her because the more attention she draws, the more opportunity for other people to step up in other games and also have positive impacts on the game and the program.”

Her vision has been emphasized by both Ewing and Pawloski, saying it is what has helped her step up as a leader in the last years.

For the self-described shy junior, a leadership role will be the next challenge. She believes she has been improving in that area, though.

“I’m kind of a shy person until I get to know someone, so I’m still working on communicating more on and off the field,” DiBernardo said. “I think I have grown as a leader since I have been at U of I, but I think I can still continue to get better.”

Ewing believes that DiBernardo has been a motivator through example and has seen players in the past two seasons become the vocal leader that DiBernardo will have to be in the next couple of years.

Currently playing for the national team and Chicago Red Stars, DiBernardo is not only catching the attention of Illini fans, but also fans of women’s soccer.

“I think having a player like her who also does stuff with the national team — it really just brings attention from fans who already have loved Illinois to people who just love soccer in general,” Ewing said. “I know there are tons of little girls in the area who have gotten even more excited about women’s soccer because of Vanessa, and I think just because, overall, she brings a new energy.”