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Now grown, Park Ridge’s original ‘Rocker’ soccer girls relive the big wins – Chicago Tribune

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They look like ordinary soccer moms, blending into the crowd at youth games, but they’re not.

They’re champions.

In the early 1990s in Park Ridge, they were on the cutting edge of girls’ participation in soccer, a relatively new sport that was just catching on, and far behind softball and basketball programs in popularity. The full impact of the glamorous U.S. national team of the late 1990s had not yet been felt.

And they won a slew of titles and  championships, including state cup, when they were elementary school girls in the 1990s.

Now, many are moms and have remained in the Park Ridge area, coaching their kids in their on-field approach.

The story of the Rockers was revived recently with a Park Ridge reunion organized by alum Chrissy Dickenson. Some 11 Rockers players and four coaches and trainers attended, with many of the players able to fit into their old uniforms originally worn in grade school. Memorabilia was plentiful, old stories even more so and the vintage camaraderie was solidly intact.

Alums looked through old albums showing photos of the Rockers when they won between 12 and 15 tournaments in the Midwest region (Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and Kentucky) between 1994 and 1997. They won the State Cup in the U-10 division in 1994, and were a State Cup runner-up in U-12 in 1996. They captured division titles in 1995 in U-11 and  1997 in U-13.

In attendance to mark three decades since the Rockers advanced the status of girls’ sports in Park Ridge were alums Dickenson, Erin Curry, Mary Therese Anichini, Robyn Schmit, Lindsay Murchie, Becky Habetler, Ashley Stopa, Stacy Benefield, Elizabeth Bondi, Christine de Leon and Amy Mollenkamp.

Benefield traveled in from Virginia while Bondi journeyed from Rochester, Minn. Founding coaches Marianna and John Desmond, and coaches/trainers Jeff and Nicki Bittner, also were on hand.

The Rockers’ best legacy could be a second generation of soccer players.

Former Rockers girls' soccer team members Stacy Benefield, left, and Ashley Stopa reminisce at the Park Ridge reunion, with Stopa holding baby A.J. Stopa. (Pam DeFiglio, Chicago Tribune/Pioneer Press)
Former Rockers girls’ soccer team members Stacy Benefield, left, and Ashley Stopa reminisce at the Park Ridge reunion, with Stopa holding baby A.J. Stopa. (Pam DeFiglio, Chicago Tribune/Pioneer Press)

Dickenson coaches son Theodore. Curry tutors daughter Brynn. Anichini coaches daughter Tessa. Schmit guides son Jake. Rhea Bassesas, who could not attend the reunion, coaches son Apollo.

“My approach is definitely more tough love,” Curry said of her one-on-one coaching style.  “I very much stress practice of skills. I also want her to have fun, but also have a hunger for game and a drive to be better. I provide a lot of constructive feedback.”

Along with other children of alums, Brynn Curry was at the Rockers reunion. She thought old was cool.

John Desmond, left, and Jeff Bittner, who both coached for the winning Rockers' girls' soccer team in the 1990s in Park Ridge, gathered at the team's reunion. (Pam DeFiglio, Chicago Tribune/Pioneer Press)
John Desmond, left, and Jeff Bittner, who both coached for the winning Rockers’ girls’ soccer team in the 1990s in Park Ridge, gathered at the team’s reunion. (Pam DeFiglio, Chicago Tribune/Pioneer Press)

“She wants to wear my old uniform,” said Erin Curry. Amazingly, the 1990s Rockers could only be outfitted in adult-small jersey sizes. But style points, then and now, still yield to the winning tradition of the program that united athletes from every elementary school in Park Ridge.

Even with the appeal of U.S. national team stars like Mia Hamm and Brandi Chastain, soccer was not universally played by young female athletes three decades ago.

“I was only one of three girls to play soccer in the early grades,” Dickenson said of her days at Roosevelt School. “More were interested in T-ball and softball. A lot were jumping rope at recess. I was in a small group playing soccer out in the field. A handful of us playing the sport with the boys.”

When alums of the former Rockers' girls' soccer team of the 1990s met recently for a reunion in their original home town of Park Ridge, memorabilia of their many wins, including state, were on display. (Pam DeFiglio, Chicago Tribune/Pioneer Press)
When alums of the former Rockers’ girls’ soccer team of the 1990s met recently for a reunion in their original home town of Park Ridge, memorabilia of their many wins, including state, were on display. (Pam DeFiglio, Chicago Tribune/Pioneer Press)

But the Park Ridge Park District began a “house league” for girls players at the dawn of the 1990s, said Dickenson. Anyone living in the city could play regardless of skill level. Hopeful soccer players from Park Ridge’s five elementary schools got to know each other in the park league.

The park program thus developed a feeder system of talent when local parents organized the original traveling Rockers team in the early 1990s. The definition of “traveling” in youth sports is playing outside the team’s host community. Eventually the Rockers won enough championships to play in tournaments throughout the Midwest.

The network of supportive parents paid between $300 and $500, in Dickenson’s recollection. But just as  important as cash contributions was the coaching of longtime Park Ridge residents John and Marianna Desmond, assisted by Jeff Bittner. They were a sum total of their parts.

The Desmonds did not have a soccer background. John Desmond coached hockey, while his wife had teaching and organizing experience. Bittner was the soccer guru, having coached and played the game.

“The three of us combined made a great team,” Bittner said. ‘But we learned from the girls as much as they learned from us.”

Unlike the Park District program, all the girls who wanted to play did not make the Rockers. Candidates had to try out. Dickenson failed two tryouts before finally earning a roster spot in 1996 at age 11.

The Desmonds and Bittner ensured their players would be motivated. No one sat on the bench rusting. Everyone was in a rotation to play important minutes. Good offensive players were nicknamed “Attackers” while top defenders were tagged “Terminators.”

Camaraderie was the key. Cliques did not form with elite players in one and lesser athletes in another.

“We had some exceptional players on the team, some intermediate players, but they never looked at each other as having lesser talent,” said Marianna Desmond.

Lessons of absorbing teamwork, disciplining one’s self to prepare and sacrifice were as important as the final team results. When the Rockers drove to an overnight tournament trip to, say, Ohio or Indiana, the girls were forbidden to jump in the hotel swimming pool before a game. There were few complaints. But the Rockers still had their fun with their families on the road trips.

“I very vividly remember those hotels in the tourneys out of town,” said Curry. “All of our family were there. We would be so loud running through corridors having fun. We’d have dance parties doing the macarena.  It was a mass slumber party.”

Lifelong friendships were thus forged on and off the field. Rockers alums wanted to pass along the atmosphere of their youth to the next generation. The likes of Dickenson and Curry went out of town to college, but returned to Park Ridge to raise families.

The reunion may not be the last one, as those childhood relationships continue into middle age and the tradition of the Rockers continues to be passed on.

“We would love to do more reunions,” said Dickenson. “It kind of felt like nobody wanted it to end.”



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