By: Sean Cartell
SEC Digital Network
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – When the history of collegiate women’s soccer is written and the early trailblazers of the sport are discussed, one name is sure to come to the top of the list of players and coaches who contributed to laying a foundation for the sport that is now one of the fastest growing ones in the United States.
Janet Rayfield was on the very first North Carolina varsity women’s soccer team in 1979 where she was on the ground floor of building one of the greatest dynasties in the history of college athletics. Rayfield had enrolled as a student at the University of North Carolina in advance of the first season in women’s soccer, but she quickly became the first star of both the program and the sport.
“It is sort of hard to describe because there weren’t any expectations,” Rayfield said by phone last week. “For me, I was thankful to have the opportunity because, coming out of high school, that didn’t appear as an opportunity literally until I had graduated and that summer was contacted by Anson [Dorrance]. It was a day-to-day experience in terms of what the expectations were.”
Facing a schedule that consisted of mostly club teams, Rayfield scored 30 goals in 12 games as a freshman. She would go on to conclude her collegiate career with 93 goals and 223 points. During her time in Chapel Hill, the Tar Heels would win the 1981 AIAW Championship before claiming the first-ever NCAA Championship in 1982. Rayfield still ranks as the Tar Heels’ third all-time leading scorer.
“During a four-year time span, we went from playing club teams to winning an NCAA Championship,” Rayfield said. “It was a whirlwhind going from something that didn’t exist to an NCAA sponsored championship sport. It was incredible to see how fast the growth took place.”
Rayfield’s experience at North Carolina under now-legendary head coach Anson Dorrance helped her grow in many more ways than just her development on the soccer field.
“The thing that was unique about that experience at that point in time was the ability for women to be accepted in terms of competitiveness,” Rayfield said. “You can see that has empowered women all along. It was really the sense that there was that competitiveness that I had sought as an athlete growing up that was now common and all the athletes on the team played with that same competitive drive. The acceptance of that was something that made us successful. The culture at North Carolina is sort of based on that competitiveness. That’s a thread that has carried with me through playing and coaching.”
Rayfield earned her degree in mathematical sciences from UNC in 1983 and moved to the Dallas area as a senior software engineer in the private sector, rising to management level in her company. She also continued to play soccer with the Ladies’ Football Club in Dallas, where she served six seasons as a captain and led her squad to three national titles.
“I was working in Dallas and that’s a place where soccer was pretty big, so I got involved playing with a lot of adult women and continued to play with them,” Rayfield said. “For me, continuing to compete was something that you miss as a college athlete. We had a pretty good level of competition. For those who didn’t have an opportunity to play post-collegiately, it gave an arena where we could continue to play at a pretty high level. The opportunity to continue the environment of competition is empowering and it’s something that sort of gets in your blood to continue to do that.”
Rayfield returned to college soccer in 1990 as an assistant coach at the University of Arkansas and was named the program’s head coach in advance of the 1993 campaign. Her elevation to head coach coincided with the university’s move to the Southeastern Conference and the conference’s sponsorship of the sport of soccer.
Rayfield’s experience in helping to build the North Carolina program from the ground up as a player proved beneficial, when she was charged with the task of doing the same thing, now as a coach, at Arkansas.
The Lady Razorbacks were one of four programs, joining Auburn, Kentucky and Vanderbilt, that were a part of the first SEC soccer season in 1993.
“It was a period of time where things were growing and there was an adaptability and an understanding that things might be thrown together early on as you started to define your standards and expectations, but that growth could happen quickly and we could set high standards,” Rayfield said. “The people who were involved in the SEC then saw a greater vision for women’s soccer. Throughout my career, I have known people who have high expectations and visions for women’s soccer. It’s no different now with people involved in the women’s professional leagues. We’ve tried and failed, and continue to try. The same thing has happened throughout the history of women’s soccer and we will continue to try until we reach those expectations.”
Was Rayfield surprised at how quickly the SEC found success in the sport of women’s soccer?
“I don’t think so,” Rayfield said. “At Carolina, we not only saw the growth in our team from my freshman year to my senior year, but we also saw women’s soccer across the country grow. I felt and sensed at that point in time that soccer across the country was growing so fast. The SEC was a strong conference in many sports and conferences like that have pride in their conference. I could sense that they caught on to the wave that women’s soccer was growing and I knew that the SEC wouldn’t be left behind.”
At the time, Arkansas offered a unique opportunity for the Lady Razorbacks to be successful. The school was one of two in the SEC during that era that had separate men’s and women’s athletics departments. Rayfield feels that during a time when a handful of women’s sports, like soccer, were in their infancy at the school, that paradigm allowed her program to receive all the attention and resources that it needed to thrive.
“Arkansas still had separate athletic departments and Bev Lewis was the athletic director strictly for the women’s program,” Rayfield said. “At that point in time, it really made a difference for all of the women’s programs at Arkansas because there was a whole staff of people whose sole responsibility was women’s athletics. Although it duplicated resources in some ways, the people who were involved really had a passion for women’s athletics and wanted to promote and provide for women’s athletics.
“Female athletes sensed that and the importance to the school and the program,” Rayfield continued. “That was a huge factor during that period of time where women’s sports were really fighting for themselves. At Arkansas, there wasn’t a tug of war between men’s and women’s athletics because there was a branch of the university strictly there for women’s sports. It made a huge difference.”
In six seasons as the head coach of the Arkansas program, Rayfield coached her team to the 1996 Western Division Championship, led her squad to the finals of the SEC Tournament on two occasions, coached six All-SEC players, four All-Region selections and 27 SEC Academic Honor Roll selections. The Lady Razorbacks won 45 matches during that stretch.
Rayfield is now in her 11th season as the head coach at the University of Illinois, where she has led her team to eight NCAA Tournament appearances, including an appearance in the regional finals in 2004.
She continues to take with her the lessons she learned as a player at North Carolina and as a head coach at Arkansas in the first season of SEC soccer, using those experiences to help mentor her current players.
“What really gives someone like myself credibility is not having won a national championship, but it’s having been a part of setting expectations and continuing to raise standards or how we need to approach an SEC Championship or a Big Ten Championship or an NCAA Championship. In terms of coaching players, it is more about knowledge than your experiences. You have to draw from all of your experiences to build a knowledge base and that gives you a credibility in front of your athletes.”
In her six seasons at Arkansas, Rayfield helped mold the Lady Razorbacks into an SEC caliber program, and was one of the pioneers in helping the conference launch its highly successful 20-year run in women’s soccer that is being celebrated in 2012.
“If you think about the 20-year history, soccer has grown in the sense of just the number of participants and the number of teams, but it has also grown in the quality of the coaching, the quality of the facilities and the quality of play and expectations,” Rayfield said. “The fan base has grown and so many things have changed with the sport of women’s soccer. A lot of that started collegiately and the parity in women’s soccer speaks to the quality of the youth players now coming into the college game and the resources being put into the collegiate level.”
The rise of soccer in the SEC happened concurrently with the growth of United States women’s soccer on an international level, culminating in its 1999 World Cup victory. Since that time, former SEC standouts Heather Mitts and Abby Wambach among others played a part in the sport’s meteoric rise internationally.
Still, Rayfield knows there is work to be done in her sport. In America, there has yet to be a successful and long-running professional league. From someone who has seen the sport of women’s soccer build itself from the ground up in every aspect, Rayfield is confident that it can take the next step.
“I do think one of the key elements for women’s soccer to continue to grow is a domestic pro league,” Rayfield said. “Over the last five years, you ask the question of the young female athlete if they have hopes of dreams of playing collegiately and then participating in a pro league, more and more say ‘yes.’ The drive to do that is apparent in the glow in their eyes. To raise the level of college women’s soccer, a pro league is certainly a vital next step and I hope we are able to move in that direction.”
When it comes to collegiate soccer in the SEC, Rayfield has been pleased with the growth she has seen since the Lady Razorbacks participated in their first league contest 20 years ago.
“I think the level of play continues to grow and grow, as does the support and the amount of television exposure,” Rayfield said. “That alone is just amazing given where we were in 1993.”