Blue-collar Berggren

Blue-collar Berggren

CHAMPAIGN – Looking for flash-and-dash moves? Gravity-defying leaps? A blur of speed? Globetrotteresque dribbling?

Then look elsewhere than Ashley Berggren.

Looking for bottom-line results? Relentless effort? The supreme competitor? A tireless commitment to improve?

Then the Illinois senior guard is your basketball player.

"Everybody says, 'She can't do this, she can't do that,' " Illini coach Theresa Grentz said. "But I say don't let the things you can't do stop you from what you can do.

"Ashley's done that. She's worked very hard. She's self-made."

She's also 1 of 20 candidates for the 1998 Naismith National Player of the Year Award.

She will become the most prolific scorer in UI women's basketball history with her fifth point today at Purdue.

And she just may be the best all-around Illini ever. Karol Kahrs, who has seen every women's basketball player in UI history, thinks so.

"I think she has probably had more of an impact in a number of ways because of her versatility and the number of positions she can play," the UI associate director of athletics said. "We've had a number of great ones – Jonelle Polk, the Robinson twins, Kendra Gantt – but Ashley has far more versatility."

The qualities Berggren does not possess, however, shape the way others view her. In a sport that pays homage to the stylish and the physically gifted, Berggren's image is of the lunch bucket-carrying laborer.

"Ashley is the very ultimate blue-collar player," Wisconsin coach Jane Albright-Dieterle said.

Even admiring teammate Melissa Parker said, "Ashley is just a flat-out hard worker. She doesn't necessarily have all the talents that some of the great athletes have, but she works hard in order to improve those she has."

Berggren, who has heard the disclaimers about her physical skills for years, said the perception doesn't bother her. Still, her own words reveal it touches a nerve with the two-time honorable mention All-American.

"At times it frustrates me because people really value athleticism and being able to jump and having a spin move or whatnot," said Berggren, the media's choice for 1997 Big Ten Player of the Year but not the coaches'. "At times it bothers me because they don't actually see what gets done on the court. It's not the way you do it; it's just the fact that you're able to put the ball in the basket.

"You're still getting the job done. And for some that's not good enough. You're (viewed as) special depending on how you put the ball in the basket."

Such perceptions of Berggren are nothing new. In high school, the 1994 News-Gazette All-State first-teamer was a do-it-all whirlwind, setting career records at Barrington for points, assists and steals.

Yet she apparently was viewed with skepticism by virtually every major college recruiter. Only three Division I programs – Illinois, Duke and Vermont – showed interest.

One coach who didn't still kicks himself for that decision.

"I'm extremely unhappy," said Northwestern coach Don Perrelli, who has seen Berggren average 27.8 points and 9.5 rebounds against his Wildcats since her sophomore year. "We didn't really pursue her that much, and after watching her play (at Illinois), I figure that was a big mistake on our part. She's really developed and really is a great, great player."

As it turned out, Berggren would receive only one Division I scholarship offer. Vermont backed off after receiving a commitment from its No. 1 choice, and Duke also took a pass on Berggren for reasons that still puzzle her.

"Duke said the admissions office didn't accept me," Berggren said. "There might have been some other reasons, because my grade-point (average) was pretty good. I was really hurt because I was set on Duke because of its high academic reputation."

It was a sobering process, especially for someone who by the eighth grade already had received a recruiting letter from one Division I school. Now only the UI and a handful of Division II and III schools were interested.

"I was just happy that someone would just want me to play for their program," Berggren recalls thinking then.

Her outlook brightened considerably after making an official campus visit to Illinois.

"I realized that Illinois was just as strong academically, and it was a better situation for me, being closer to home and having my parents being able to come down for games.

"I realized if I looked at the whole picture, this was a great opportunity."

Berggren has seized the opportunity with a vengeance. During her career, she's:

– Become the first player in UI history (men or women) to total at least 1,900 points, 700 rebounds and 300 assists.

– Led the Big Ten in scoring;

– Risen to eighth in the league in career scoring;

– Recorded 25 double-doubles;

– Five times earned Big Ten Player of the Week honors.

"She's one of the best players that's ever been in the Big Ten," said Perrelli, who's coached in the league for 14 seasons.

Many speak of her as the best offensive rebounder for her size in the women's game. Although 5-foot-10 (Berggren said she's really 5-9), she routinely wages winning battles with rival rebounders up to 8 inches taller.

"She's outsized, outquicked or whatever, but she will just fight for that ball two or three times until she scores," Grentz said of the UI's No. 5 career rebounder.

Said Perrelli: "I think she is the best offensive rebounder that I've seen. She just knows where the ball is going, and she has an uncanny knack of getting a hand on the ball and putting it back up. That's a gift, an out-and-out gift."

Berggren, who racked up 116 offensive rebounds as a sophomore and 97 last season, said the her most satisfying personal achievement was a rebounding feat.

"I was second a few years ago in the Big Ten," said Berggren, referring to her 9.4 average in 1995-96. "I'm more proud of that than anything because I am 5-9, and I believe I achieved that just because of hard work and determination.

"I place a lot of value on that because those are characteristics I'll be able to use my whole life."

Michigan State coach Karen Langeland has seen the determination at work not only against her, but also for her. A couple of years ago, Berggren played on a Big Ten All-Star team Langeland coached. After a 5-0 start on its overseas tour, the Big Ten stars were seconds away from their first loss. Then Berggren came up with a steal that led to the winning layup, an image still vivid in Langeland's memory.

"She's an incredible competitor," the Spartans coach said. "So aggressive. And I was impressed that summer with how much of a team player she was."

Since that summer, Illinois has evolved into a national power. And Berggren's role has evolved with it.

Asked to carry the offensive load as a sophomore, she responded with a Big Ten-leading and school-record 24.6-point average. Then Illinois added one of the top recruiting classes in the nation last season, and Berggren was able to spread her contributions around. Last year, she led the Illini not only in scoring, but in assists and steals. This season, she ranks in the top two in all three categories, and her shooting percentage (58.0) is threatening Polk's school record.

"She'll do whatever it takes to win ballgames," Parker said.

Said Perrelli: "I think this is the ultimate compliment I can pay her. She'll do the things that Illinois needs to be done. When they were struggling, she was their go-to player. ... Now she's still a great player, but maybe in a different role now that she has so many other players on the team.

"I think she's still the glue that holds that team together."

Even if her style's not considered highlight-film material.

"I believe I've proven myself these four years," Berggren said. "I get things done on the court because I work hard and I persevere and I'm very determined.

"And a lot of people can relate to that, and they respect that. That's something I truly value."