Women's Soccer
Feature: Vanessa DiBernardo Strikes Gold In Japan

Vanessa DiBernardo with her gold medal from winning the U20 World Cup
Vanessa DiBernardo with her gold medal from winning the U20 World Cup

Sept. 20, 2012

By Josh Bates, Illinois Sports Information

The 2011 Big Ten midfielder of the year, holder of the fifth-most career points in Illinois history and U-20 World Cup champion all describe junior Vanessa DiBernardo. The Illini standout has excelled on the pitch in her hometown of Naperville, in Champaign-Urbana and now in the likes of Hiroshima and Tokyo, Japan. DiBernardo, along with Illinois head coach Janet Rayfield – who served as an assistant coach – represented the United States on the U-20 women’s national team in Japan, where they defeated Germany, 1-0, in the final to claim the gold medal.

DiBernardo’s journey began on Aug. 9, when she departed Champaign in what would be a 24-hour venture to Hiroshima, the U.S.’ first game location. After some rest, the U-20 squad spent the day touring the city and absorbed as much culture as they could.

“In Hiroshima, we got to see the memorial of the atomic bombing,” DiBernardo said.  “That was a really cool experience due to its  historical significance and they had a whole museum filled with pictures and pieces of what’s left. We went down to the city and shopped a little bit as well and got to see a little bit more of the culture.”

Before her first match in group play against Ghana, DiBernardo’s focus was halfway across the globe as the Illinois squad was kicking off their 2012 season with a 1-0 win over Western Michigan.

“I would watch Twitter, read the results and talk to my Illini teammates when I could,” DiBernardo said. “It was tough to see them playing a game and not being able to be there, and not being able to watch it as well. But I was in contact with them and knew what was going on at the time. My Illini teammates were also very supportive. Before one of the games they sent me a funny video and it helped me relax a little bit. I tried to be just as supportive to them as well.”

Once the tournament started, it became very surreal for the young Illinois star. After a 4-0 rout of Ghana, DiBernardo realized that she was now competing against the best in the world for one of the best prizes in the soccer world. She noted the play to be much faster and more physical with the atmosphere and environment on a different scale, but when asked about the similarities or differences between playing at Illinois and the international stage, DiBernardo cited there wasn’t too much of a difference. True, she’s proudly competing for an entire nation, but when she puts on her jersey with the Orange and Blue, she still feels a high level of importance.

After the U.S. squad tied China, 1-1, the Americans stumbled against the defending world champion Germany squad, 3-0, in the final match of group play. The U.S. still advanced to the quarterfinal knockout stage thanks to a superior goal differential over China.

“We knew after the game we shouldn’t have lost 3-0,” DiBernardo said. “The game wasn’t like that. We were confident that their goals were our mistakes. We were confident if we played them again, we would play better.”

The U.S. squad then faced a tough Korea team in the quarters. DiBernardo scored her first goal of the tournament from an impressive 28 yards out to power the Americans to a 2-1 win. The goal was eventually nominated as one of the top-10 goals of the World Cup.

“The ball kind of just came to me and no one was pressuring me, so I shot it,” she said.  “To be honest, I didn’t know it went in, then my teammates started coming up to me celebrating. It was an amazing feeling.”

After surpassing Nigeria, 2-0, in the semis, the U.S. learned it would get that rematch with Germany, but this time with the gold medal on the line. The Germans played the role of the favorites, as they hadn’t allowed a goal throughout the entire tournament. Germany’s shutout streak came to an end at 610 minutes when the Americans’ Kealia Ohai netted the eventual game-winner.

When the match concluded, it was an emotional ride for DiBernardo and the rest of the U.S. squad, which became close friends through this process. To share an achievement on a grand scale with friends is a moment that she will never forget.

“I was thinking, ‘Did this really just happen?’” DiBernardo said. “Once the whistle blew, I looked at our center back and we ran to each other and we were crying. It was emotional and very rewarding. To stand out there while they played the national anthem gave me chills.”

Vanessa and Coach Rayfield returned to Champaign the morning of Monday, Sept. 10, after another exhausting set of flights, but the trip home was slightly different; in terms of a special carry-on in the form of a gold medal. DiBernardo plans to proudly display her medal in her bedroom so she can see it every day. She noted it is a symbol of all the hard work the team invested and that it paid off.

“I think one of the things that helped us win the championship was our midfield and Vanessa was an integral part in that,” Rayfield said. “I think what I saw was a player that grew tremendously from the start of this process to the end in her ability and in her confidence. I think she has returned to the Illini program as a confident leader and someone who understands what it means to make the players around you better. Her ability to see things and her ability to play at a speed that was successful at the international level will only propel her and propel this program even farther.”

The focus now shifts to the Big Ten regular season that kicked off Sunday, Sept. 16, when the Illini defeated Iowa 2-1 in Champaign, with DiBernardo scoring her first goal of 2012 less than four minutes into the contest. Rayfield re-took the helm of an Orange and Blue squad that finished a very tough non-conference schedule with a respectable 3-3-1 ledger. The first month of play saw Illinois claim victories over Western Michigan, UC Santa Barbara and Wisconsin-Milwaukee, but lose hard fought games to three top-20 programs in UCLA, Virginia Tech and Wake Forest.

The midfielder officially starts her junior season ranked as the No. 10 upperclassmen in the NCAA by Top Drawer Soccer. In addition, DiBernardo was named to the MAC Hermann Trophy Watch List, which is the highest individual award presented in intercollegiate soccer.