Vanessa DiBernardo ranks first in the Big Ten in goals (5), points (11), points per game (1.83) and goals per game (0.83).
By: Cody Lahl, Illinois Sports Information
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - The following feature covers freshman midfielder Vanessa DiBernardo and the strong start the Illinois women's soccer team has earned. The story originally ran in the Illinois football program for their home-opener with Southern Illinois.
During August pre-season fitness training, women's soccer head coach Janet Rayfield notices one of her players finish an endurance drill with a smile on her face.
"Vanessa, are you in pain?" Rayfield inquires.
The answer, hidden behind the familiar yet contradictory smile given the situation: "Yes."
No matter the circumstances on the field, Vanessa DiBernardo has a smile on her face. Ninety minutes into practice, it's there. After running sprints in the middle of an endurance test, she stands up straight to catch her breath, smiles and lines up for another. Her laughter with teammates can be heard from across the field. Those watching from the sideline wonder: What is it that makes DiBernardo smile whenever she hits the field?
DiBernardo, a midfielder in her first season with the Illini, immediately established herself as an offensive threat for the Orange and Blue. She has notched five goals and an assist through six games, recording each tally no later than 40 minutes into the match.
"Vanessa has incredible natural instincts about how to get out of pressure and where there is space to play the ball," Rayfield said. "She has found space throughout the first six games and has put her shots on frame. Combining those two aspects of the game will put you on the scoreboard."
DiBernardo also found her name in the media and on award lists throughout the years leading up to her arrival at the University of Illinois. As a four-year letter-winner at Waubonsie Valley High School in Naperville, Ill., DiBernardo led the Warriors to Illinois state titles in 2007, 2008 and 2010. DiBernardo earned Player of the Year awards from Gatorade and the IHSSCA. Everything has pointed toward a successful collegiate career and the 5-foot-4-inch midfielder has delivered on the promises.With the Illini opening the regular season at Loyola-Chicago, DiBernardo placed the first corner kick opportunity of the year in the box where teammate Danielle Kot was positioned, ready to redirect a header on goal. Seven minutes into her collegiate career, DiBernardo earned her first point on an assist. It only took five more to notch her first goal.
Controlling the ball at midfield, DiBernardo raced toward the left corner flag. After out-pacing the Ramblers' defense, DiBernardo cut back into the middle of the field and crushed a shot past the Loyola-Chicago keeper.
"When you have a freshman who, five games in, is leading you in points, you have to say that's a great start in terms of her performance," Rayfield said. "She came in fit and physically prepared, and that has assisted her in terms of confidence on the field. It certainly helps that there is a great crew around her."
Like Rayfield, DiBernardo recognizes her success has been reliant on the team around her. A team which returned the top seven point scorers from last season along with eight starters from 2009.
"My teammates have certainly helped me a lot, especially the older players who have experienced what a freshman goes through," DiBernardo said. "They are always encouraging. On the field, if I make a mistake, they remind me to forget about it and focus on what is next. Without them, I could get very down on myself."
Four days after the season opener, Wright State's defense didn't have time to react either. Off a throw-in by teammate Megan Pawloski, DiBernardo one-timed an attempt on goal with her right foot. Her shot deflected off the center of the crossbar and slammed into the back of the net. The now-familiar smile and laughter etched on DiBernardo's face as her teammates rushed in with congratulations. The Raiders' goalie didn't even have time to put her arms up.
"Her smile influences others," senior forward Jordan Hilbrands, the active career goals leader on the Illini, said. "When you see her smile you can't help but to notice that she is having a good time playing soccer. Vanessa's good attitude can be contagious."
With a little help from her team, DiBernardo pushed her streak of consecutive games with a goal to three, the longest such streak since former Illini Jessica Bayne accomplished the feat in 2005. Against Ball State, teammate Niki Read fed DiBernardo a perfect pass as she raced into the box. DiBernardo rewarded Read by breaking the scoreless tie and netting her first collegiate game-winning goal.
"The smile Vanessa puts on her face lightens everything and keeps it in perspective," Rayfield comments as she attempts to explain her midfielder's playing mentality. "We are doing this because we love it, not because we have to. It's a nice reminder that this is a choice and we do it because we love this game, this team and the competition."
At the end of fourth week of the season, the Illini are 5-1-0 and second in the Big Ten. They have outscored, outshot and outplayed opponents consistently. No one should be asking: Why is Vanessa always smiling?
"I enjoy playing soccer, so I guess it is what makes me happy," DiBernardo says with a sigh and laughter at the frustratingly familiar inquiry. "I don't really know how to answer that question."
With the team's spot near the top of the Big Ten and her performance earning her a place atop the conference's leader-board in goals, points, goals per game and points per game - the fitting question would be: Why shouldn't she?