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Waubonsie Valley duo teams up with Chicago Red Stars

Vanessa DiBernardo let out a loud burst of laughter.

The Chicago Red Stars captain first met fellow Waubonsie Valley graduate Sarah Griffith six months earlier, when Griffith reported to training camp after being drafted out of Purdue.

“From our high school coach (Julie Bergstrom), I always knew of her, but we never met until we started playing here together,” DiBernardo said. “I knew she was from Waubonsie and I’d heard a lot about her, so I’m excited to have someone from home and get to play with her.”

Griffith, 23, who is seven years younger than DiBernardo, also was eager to meet DiBernardo.

“The first conversation I was like, ‘Hey, you played with ‘Berg,’ right? ‘Berg’ would always talk to me about you and show me your film,’” Griffith recalled. “Then I started playing.”

But Griffth left something out. DiBernardo, 30, didn’t find out Griffith had been a ball girl at all of DiBernardo’s home games at Waubonsie until informed by a reporter, prompting the laughter.

“No, I didn’t know that,” DiBernardo said. “That’s a pretty cool story.”

Griffith’s transition from fan girl to teammate has been pretty cool too. The rookie forward has quickly made an impact while meshing with DiBernardo.

“It’s been a dream,” Griffith said. “This is what I’ve always wanted to do.

“I’m taking things day by day. The IQ that everyone here has for the game and what they see is so much more advanced than anything I’ve ever played in.”

DiBernardo, who led Waubonsie to three state championships before playing at Illinois, and Griffith have much in common. Both starred at Big Ten programs before being drafted by the Red Stars. Both cracked the starting lineup as rookies.

Griffith appeared in 11 of the Red Stars’ first 13 games, including five starts, and has impressed first-year coach Chris Petrucelli.

“Sarah has had a very good season so far,” Petrucelli said on July 10 after Chicago’s 2-2 tie with North Carolina at SeatGeek Stadium in Bridgeview. “She had a rough game last week and the response was fantastic.

“She was great in training, put her head down and went to work, trusted in her talent, and you saw the result. I thought she was very, very good.”

On May 22 in Orlando, Griffith scored her first professional goal on a header off an assist from DiBernardo. She tallied her second goal in dramatic fashion against North Carolina, taking a lead pass from DiBernardo and chipping a shot over the goalkeeper in the first minute of stoppage time.

The Red Stars then scored off a corner kick on the final play of the game to salvage the tie.

Griffith had many supporters in the crowd of 4,098, including most of her former Purdue teammates and coaches as well as her parents and grandparents.

“It was fun,” Griffith said. “We all took pictures on the field. It was a special moment.”

It might not be the last such moment.

“She’s come in and done great,” DiBernardo said. “She has qualities we don’t have, so her role on this team has been to create the attack.

“She gets the ball and she’s able to get in and out of tight spaces. In this league, that’s super important because everyone is so athletic. That’s where she’s finding success.”

Petrucelli was not aware of DiBernardo and Griffith played at the same high school, although he is familiar with Waubonsie, which also produced 1995 World Cup player Debbie Keller.

He’s pleased to see how quickly they have meshed.

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“The two of them together certainly cause problems because they’re both tricky, they both can finish and they both have the ability to get behind people,” Petrucelli said. “Vanessa is a great role model for younger players, so it’s nice to have them together.”

DiBernardo has been preparing Griffith for the grind of the NWSL season.

“It’s a long season, and that’s a huge difference from college to professional,” DiBernardo said. “You’ll go through ups and downs. That’s completely normal.

“As long as you are able to ride those waves and have the confidence while you do that, you’ll be successful. She’s doing that.”

Griffith already is settling in.

“It’s exciting to see how much I have to learn and how much I can develop by learning those things,” Griffith said. “I feel I’m in a good spot and ready for whatever comes.”

Matt Le Cren is a freelance reporter for the Naperville Sun.

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