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posted: 8/3/2012 9:45 PM

Berggren tackles a new sport

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  • Ashley Berggren

      Ashley Berggren

  • Ashley Berggren

      Ashley Berggren

  • Ashley Berggren

      Ashley Berggren

  • Ashley Berggren

      Ashley Berggren

 
By Ross Forman
Daily Herald Correspondent

During summer break before her sixth-grade year at Barrington Middle School, Ashley Berggren randomly wrote a story about leading her beloved Bears to a Super Bowl championship -- and she would be the one replacing Jim McMahon at quarterback.

Berggren's sister, Kathy Pollicita, is convinced she still has the story, somewhere, and has been looking everywhere for it.

That's because Berggren on Saturday afternoon steps onto Heinz Field in Pittsburgh for the first women's football game ever played at an NFL stadium.

Berggren, who earned 11 varsity letters in three sports (volleyball, basketball and softball) at Barrington High School and then went on to an All-American basketball career at the University of Illinois, is now a two-way player in her second season for the Chicago Force.

The Force competes in the Women's Football Alliance (WFA), a league consisting of 63 teams across North America, mostly in the U.S.

The Force, in its 10th season, battles the San Diego Surge for the national championship. Both teams are 11-0, and the Force advanced with a thrilling 35-34 semifinal win over the Boston Militia -- the two-time defending national champion -- played at the Force's home field at Evanston Township High School.

"Never in my wildest imagination did I envision playing in Heinz Field, competing for a national championship. It truly is amazing," said Berggren, 35, who lives in Evanston and is the head girls basketball coach at Schaumburg. "It's a very surreal feeling and it actually hasn't really set in yet."

Saturday's game will be, without question, her sporting highlight, she said, which truly says something given Berggren's status locally as a legend on the fields and courts.

"I cannot single out one game or one moment; rather, it's been the whole process of learning the sport and just overcoming certain (personal) fears related to the sport," Berggren said. "The highlight, when I look back at this (football) experience, is just working with this amazing group of women and coaches; they truly are some incredible people. They've broken down barriers and each one of them puts their heart and soul into this organization.

"There are a lot of naysayers when you say that you play women's tackle football. But I'm just going to savor every moment."

And dream of catching a touchdown pass, as she has once this season. Or stopping an oncoming rusher; she has 5 tackles this season. Berggren also has returned one punt this year.

"I never thought I'd put on shoulder pads and a helmet and represent the city of Chicago, playing football," she said.

After all, her sporting world now mostly centers on the Schaumburg girls basketball team, which she has coached for four years. She's taken the Saxons from a 6-win season in her first year to a 15-13 run this past season. She also is a Schaumburg softball coach -- an assistant with the varsity and the head sophomore coach.

And yes, the Saxons athletes are now well aware that coach Berggren also still is Athlete Ashley.

"My players definitely were questioning what was going on when I showed up at (softball) practice with bruises on my arms," she said, laughing. "At first, the players thought it was flag football, but then they researched the (Force).

"One of the great aspects of this is that I am an athlete again, so I have to be coached and motivated, and I have to look within myself to bring out the best, to bring out my potential. It's been a learning experience because I'm being coached again. I think this experience has helped improve my coaching, particularly, communicating and understanding or at least attempting to understand what motivates players. That's the art of coaching."

The Force is led by John Konecki, in his sixth year with the team, his second as head coach and offensive coordinator. Konecki was the head coach and offensive coordinator for Team USA, the women's all-star team that captured the gold medal in the 2011 World Championship in Sweden. Konecki is also the offensive coordinator at Crete-Monee High School.

"Football epitomizes team work, and that's a little different from other sports," Berggren said. "If you don't do your job, you not only aren't going to be successful, but, you potentially can hurt your teammates. That takes your responsibility to another level; there's accountability such that you cannot let up on plays."

Berggren, who sees action at wide receiver and defensive end, sports uniform No. 80.

"Ashley is a playmaker who has a knack for making an impact when we need it most," said Force owner Linda Bache, herself a former defensive standout for the team. "This is only Ashley's second season of play, but she's been a fan of the game since childhood and her knowledge base is increasing with each practice. She is an extremely talented and accomplished athlete. I like her ball skills; it's instinctual for her. She moves very naturally to the ball, uses her body well, has great hands and is dangerous in the open field. You can't teach that."

Added Force teammate Trish Charbonneau: "Her collegiate basketball success and experience brings an understanding of what championship events feel like; she has the ability to deal with the high stakes situations."

But why football?

"For a long time, I had heard that there were some leagues, opportunities for women to play football," Berggren said. "And in 2008, I went to a Force game and really had a fun time."

She eventually went to a team tryout two years ago -- and was wearing the team's black uniform a few months later for home games.

"Football, I think, really encapsulates a team sport," she said. "Not knowing very much about football (when I tried out), and yet competing at a very high level (in other sports), it was a very humbling experience for me. I realized that I had to take a step back and really make an effort to learn everything about the game.

"In most of the other sports that I have played, I was able to pick up (those sports) right away. But football is not that easy. You not only have to have skill, but you also have to have that certain mentality, that aggressive mentality -- and I didn't know if I had that when I first started. I didn't particularly like tackling, or being tackled, so I really had to (quickly) figure out if this sport was for me. After about a month of (practicing in) full pads, and getting over the fear of tackling and being tackled, I realized that I wanted to put everything into it and be the best I can be in it."

And come Saturday night when Berggren, ironically, goes to a wedding reception for a friend, she could be calling herself a national champion, not just a multi-time All-American.

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