One of the most exciting periods in women's college basketball history in the state of Illinois involves a pair of rags-to-riches stories.
And those stories, one of an individual and one of a team, collided to create one heck of a spectacular run.
Ashley Berggren, now a 36-year-old teacher and coach at Schaumburg High School, found out recently that she will be inducted into the Illinois Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Fame later this season.
Her credentials are memorable, to say the least.
Berggren was the face of one of the greatest turnarounds in women's college basketball. But neither her rise from a passed-over recruit to a college all-American, nor the transformation of the University of Illinois from Big Ten doormat to national powerhouse could have been predicted.
"I would have never expected it," Berggren said. "To be a part of the evolution was priceless."
Berggren graduated from Barrington High School in 1994 as the school's all-time leading scorer for girl's basketball with more than 2,000 points, as well as the holder of many other major records. A hard-nosed guard with a sweet shooting touch and a knack for getting to the basket, she had some offers from major Division I schools, such as Duke and Illinois, but the two best programs in the state at the time, Northwestern and DePaul, both took passes.
When Duke suddenly lost interest in Berggren, she was devastated and decided to sign with Illinois, even though the program was in shambles and consistently finishing in last place in the Big Ten.
"My freshman year at Illinois, we finished 11th in the Big Ten. There were barely 200 people in the stands," Berggren said. "Then we got a new coach."
Theresa Grentz, a veteran coach who had built a national powerhouse at Rutgers, took Champaign by storm. One of her first orders of business was to help a promising Berggren reach her full potential.
"Coach Grentz was this great motivator and she really worked with me to instill a confidence in me that I really never had before," Berggren said. "I was always trying to be this perfectionist and when I wouldn't succeed, I'd get so disappointed in myself that it really took away from how I played. I think I had a lot of insecurities and that probably hurt me (in high school with recruiting).
"One day, Coach Grentz brought me into her office and told me that I had to play with more confidence, almost with a cockiness. She said that I had to own the court. She told me that if I did that, I'd find out how good I really could be."
Berggren found out fast. So did the Illini. By the next year, Berggren's junior season, Illinois was suddenly ranked nationally. Berggren wound up being named the Big Ten player of the year at the end of the season.
As a senior, Berggren and her up-and-coming sidekick, former Stevenson great Tauja Catchings, led Illinois to a top-five national ranking. Games in Champaign were drawing 16,000-plus fans and being broadcast on ESPN.
"To see all those fans at our games was so great. People in the community really embraced our team," Berggren said. "They still talk about that time down there. It was a lot of fun for all of us."
Berggren has been on a whirlwind since then.
She played professional basketball briefly for the Chicago Condors in the American Basketball League before it folded. She also went to Europe. She then became a teacher through the Teach For America program, which sent her to serve in underfunded and underperforming school districts in California and the inner city of Chicago. She overcame some personal and professional setbacks and took a year off to learn how to snowboard in Colorado.
For the last four years, she has been teaching and coaching basketball and softball at Schaumburg High School. Her Saxons logged their first winning season last year at 15-13. They are currently 3-4.
"Coaching is so much harder than playing," Berggren said with a chuckle. "There's so much involved in coaching and so much of it goes way beyond the X's and O's. But it's such a great challenge every day, and the best part is working with kids. I enjoy that the most. I really like being a teacher of the game."
Berggren also still likes to play the game. She participates in recreation leagues and pick-up games in the city when she has time. But her real outlet is football, of all things. Berggren now plays semi-pro football for the Chicago Force and is a defensive lineman and wide receiver. She will be starting her third season next spring.
"We were in the national championship game last year and lost by 4 points, so we're all excited to come back and try to get that title," Berggren said. "It's a lot of fun, but football is such a challenge. There are always so many obstacles in front of you that you have to deal with."
Berggren has made a Hall-of-Fame-worthy career of doing that.
"I look at some of the players from the past who have gotten in (the Hall of Fame) and to be associated with them is just incredible," Berggren said. "I thought it was an honor just to be nominated. It's really special to be in."
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