Ella Masar and the Illini will make several appearances on the Big Ten Network this fall.
July 27, 2007
Champaign, Ill. - The Big Ten Network is set to launch on Aug. 30 providing fans of its 11 schools conference programming 24 hours a day/seven days per week. In addition to expanding coverage of football and basketball, Illini fans will get a chance to see some of the stars of Olympic sports that are making headlines. This is the first in a series of profiles of athletes you have likely read about, but perhaps never had a chance to see their talents.
Before there was Mia Hamm, there was Janet Rayfield. The former Tar Heel starred on North Carolina's first varsity soccer team in 1979. Rayfield and legendary coach Anson Dorrance came on the scene at a time when New England schools like Harvard and UMass and west coast schools like Stanford dominated the women's soccer landscape.
Rayfield scored 30 goals in 12 games that season as the Tar Heels went 12-0 against collegiate schools, losing only two games - to a club team called the McLean Grasshoppers. Rayfield finished her career with 93 goals and 223 points, records that stood until Hamm came along. North Carolina won its first NCAA championship in 1982 and has won 17 of the first 25 titles.
Rayfield, a former head coach at the University of Arkansas and an assistant coach at Illinois, has taken the Illini program, now in its 11th season, to the brink - winning a Big Ten Tournament title in 2003 and reaching the NCAA Elite Eight in 2004.
This summer the fourth player under Rayfield has had a chance to play big-time international soccer as senior-to-be forward Ella Masar has had a chance to play with the U.S. National U-21 team in Finland.
"Ella's ultimate goal is to make the U.S. National Team," explained Rayfield. "To get her shot with one of the youth teams is a step in that direction."
Masar joins former Illini Tara Hurless and Leisha Alcia and Masar's current teammate Emily Zurrer with that distinction. While Alcia and Zurrer brought that experience to Illinois, Rayfield said that Hurless and Masar share the same road of establishing themselves while playing for the Illini.
"For us as a program, it makes a statement about our environment here and the ability to produce and develop a player who comes into our program without that experience or recognition," Rayfield said. "If you have the talent and the work ethic, we have the environment to take those ingredients and produce a player who can compete at that level."
Rayfield said Masar's summer experience benefits all involved. "It shows what we can do for her and what she can do for us," she said. "It benefits us because Ella can bring something back that will help her be an even greater contributor to our program."
Masar, a graduate of Urbana High School, made a combined 12 starts in her first two years, but made a noticeable improvement from her sophomore to junior seasons. "She took the step from being a phenomenal athlete to being a phenomenal soccer player," Rayfield said. "The season that she had this fall put her in position for this experience with the under 21 national team."
Masar earned second-team All-America honors after scoring nine goals and nine assists for 27 points. She was named Big Ten Player of the Week after scoring the tying and winning goals in the comeback win over traditional power Penn State. Masar tied the school record with a point in eight straight matches and ranks fifth in school history in game-winning goals. Masar earned Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year.
In addition to her experience with the U-21 national team, Masar has played with the Vancouver Whitecaps, which includes national level players from both the U.S. and Canada. "I expect her now to take a similar size step this year," Rayfield said. "She'll be even more polished and more confident with a lot more tools. The role that she has played in all three situations - with our team, with Whitecaps and with the national team has been different. That's only going to help her."
Rayfield said it's been combining her physical talent with her soccer skills that has made her such an impressive performer. "Ella has an unbelievable acceleration and an unbelievable physical courage," Rayfield said. "The combination of those two was a special piece from day one. She's been able to add the technical and tactical skills that she needed to take advantage of those talents. It's all of the above that has put her in the mix with some elite players."
Masar is just one in a line of successful players Illinois has produced. One, keeper Leisha Alcia, joins the coaching staff this year as Masar and Illinois look to reach new frontiers.
"The first piece of building any program is establishing a culture," Rayfield said "Even prior to my arrival, there was a culture of competitiveness. As a staff, we added an expectation level of competing at the highest level. Now we expect to be at the top and know we have to compete to stay at the top.
"Once you have that culture you start to attract players that want to thrive in that culture," she continued. "They're willing to risk whatever it takes to play for those championships, even their own playing time. It's the little snowball that starts to roll that builds a bigger snowball. The culture is that center snowball in the middle. Now there is a realistic expectation to set the bar higher. The next step is to win the Big Ten title and get to the Final Four. Those successes help to set the level of expectation even higher than they were before."
Masar and the rest of the Illini now have an outlet to showcase that journey. "The top players in the country are starting to realizing that you don't need to go to those traditional powers to win a national title," Rayfield said. "They can go to a school that fits them academically and still have the ability to compete for a national championship. The more players recognize that that's the situation, the more the landscape of college soccer at the top is going to change. You're starting to see that. The Big Ten Network is going to make that very tangible to the potential recruits across the country. We can share with them about Big Ten soccer, about Big Ten schools, about the Big Ten competitive environment and about what each of the programs are all about. That is going to be huge for us."