Illini of the Week: DiBernardo brings international experience back home

_Editor’s note: The Daily Illini sports desk sits down Sunday nights and decides which Illinois athlete or coach is our Illini of the Week. Student-athletes and coaches are evaluated by individual performance and contribution to team success._

Vanessa DiBernardo spent the first day of her junior year in Japan at Miyagi Stadium playing against Germany in the last match before the quarterfinals. DiBernardo was named to the U.S. under-20 Women’s National Team at the beginning of August, sealing her spot to play in the under-20 2012 World Cup.

But DiBernardo was not the only one announced to represent the Illini.

Head coach Janet Rayfield was named assistant coach to the national squad, a position she has held since 2009.

Earning the victory against Germany in the final match allowed the U.S. to claim the world title for the third time in four years. Sharing that moment with one of her collegiate players added to the accomplishment for Rayfield.

“To watch one of your own players in that experience and see how that’s affected them was certainly unique and a bond that I’m sure Vanessa and I will share throughout her career,” Rayfield said. “I think it just makes it that much more special because you just realize what a pinnacle experience that is for a player.”

DiBernardo was more than prepared for her World Cup experience after recording two goals and an assist in five games with the under-20 squad during CONCACAF qualifying in Panama and earning a pair of assists against New Zealand in May.

She also traveled to Japan in July to play a few friendly matches before entering her training camp at the end of the month.

DiBernardo said after preparing for so long, the team was ready and excited when it arrived in Japan.

DiBernardo played all 90 minutes of the first match against Ghana, making a crucial play in the 20th minute by placing a corner kick right outside of the 6-yard box, where teammate Morgan Brian headed it off the crossbar, then off a Ghana defender and into the goal.

This was the first goal put on the board for the Americans with three more to come later in the game. A 4-0 final earned the Americans their first victory in the tournament.

In the second match against China, DiBernardo played the whole game as a midfielder. The U.S. had to settle for a 1-1 tie against China but had one last match versus Germany before the knockout stage.

DiBernardo is a starter at Illinois and spends most of her time out on the field. However, representing the United States felt a little different.

“It was a lot of fun,” DiBernardo said. “Standing out there while they play the national anthem was a great experience, and I would even get the chills sometimes.”

DiBernardo earned her only goal of the tournament in a quarterfinal against South Korea.

At Illinois, DiBernardo earned the title of leading scorer last season, tallying the winning goal in overtime against Penn State to seal the team’s second Big Ten title.

She again recorded the clinching goal for the Americans against South Korea during overtime, which advanced them to the semifinal match against Nigeria. The U.S. would go on to match up against Germany for a second time, previously losing 3-0 to the Germans to finish group stage.

“After I scored the goal, I thought, ‘Did that really just happen?’” DiBernardo said. “It was a long shot, and it was so unreal. I didn’t even know it went in. It’s hard to describe.”

Though they had previously lost to Germany, DiBernardo felt their best effort wasn’t put into their previous meeting, and this time the Americans would be better prepared.

“I think we knew after the game (in the group stage) that we shouldn’t have lost 3-0,” DiBernardo said. “We were confident that their goals were our mistakes. We were confident after the game that if we played them again we could do better.”

With the odds against them, the Americans bested Germany for a 1-0 victory. American Kealia Ohai recorded the only goal in the 44th minute on a low cross ball in the middle of the box. The U.S. was able to hold off Germany for the rest of the game to earn World Cup.

While DiBernardo was playing in Japan, her teammates in Illinois still remained supportive. Though they had busy schedules, along with the 14-hour time difference, the team continued to show its support from a distance.

“We filmed a series of videos that we emailed or texted over to Janet,” senior Marissa Holden said.

“We made a bunch of signs and took pictures of them. Social media definitely helped because they were checking Twitter. I think they definitely knew they were supported, and we were cheering loud for them.”

DiBernardo will be bringing her international experience back to her teammates here at Illinois, which will benefit them as the Big Ten season starts Sunday. Having to play against foreign competitors and with different women from across the country allowed DiBernardo to mature as a player.

“I’ve learned a lot,” DiBernardo said. “In that tournament, every game was different. I learned how to problem solve a lot better so I can transition that over to my teammates now.”

The feelings from winning the under-20 Women’s World Cup still linger inside both Illini, and reality has not set in. Though Rayfield was not there as a player, she considers this one of the biggest moments in her overall soccer career.

“I’ve been coaching for over 20 years, and I’ve won a national collegiate championship as a player, but this certainly was a pinnacle in my coaching career,” she said. “I told the athletes, 20 years from now, most of them will realize it was a pinnacle in their playing careers. Not many people have a world championship in any sport, but in the sport of soccer where results can be so hard to come by, you can dominate and still lose.

“To have a world championship is a phenomenal experience but also a phenomenal accomplishment.”

_Gina can be reached at [email protected] and @muelle30._