The joy of her game

New Trier coach Teri Rodgers addresses her team from the middle of the huddle during a timeout against Libertyville High School. (Giuliana Allegrotti/MEDILL)

By Giuliana Allegrotti

Barb Rodgers peered into the elementary school gym window to watch basketball tryouts. She had her eye on one player in particular.

The school principal, on his way out of the gym, turned to Rodgers and said, “That little girl is pretty good. It’s too bad we can’t keep her.”

“Why not?” Rodgers asked.

“You know,” he said, “playing on a team with all boys, it’s probably going to be too hard.”

Rodgers pressed. “You know, that little girl probably knows she’s as good as anyone else.”

Teri Rodgers made that boys basketball team in fifth grade, beginning a life filled with basketball that would take her through Libertyville High School, Duke University, and, when her playing career ended, New Trier Township High School, where she’s been head coach of the girls’ team for the past 19 years. Through it all, she’s carried with her the same confidence she had at the elementary school tryout.

Rodgers comes from a family of sports fans and never felt discouraged from playing sports at any level, despite being female. In addition to basketball, Rodgers played volleyball and softball in high school. Her mom put her in soccer when Teri asked to play football with the boys.

“No matter what sport it was, I just loved playing,” Teri Rodgers said. “No one forced me to do anything. It was driven from a love of the game. A love of playing.”

By the time Rodgers was a senior in high school, basketball was her number one sport. A prototypical point guard, Rodgers could handle and distribute the ball well and play good defense. She knew “how the game should run.”

She was also an Illinois State Scholar and prioritized going to a strong academic college or university over everything else. Rodgers had the chance to play Big Ten basketball at Iowa, but went with stronger academic options. She chose Duke over Princeton, and was pre-med her freshman year.

Being around Duke men’s basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski in Durham, N.C. inspired Rodgers to consider a career in coaching.

By her senior year at Duke, Rodgers’ priorities had begun to shift away from basketball as she worked toward her teaching certificate. When she got her schedule for student teaching, a requirement for certification, she saw it conflicted with basketball practice. Her coach was unwilling to compromise with her schedule, so Rodgers said she had had enough.

“By then, basketball had become a little bit of a chore and I lost my love of playing,” Rodgers said.

After going home for fall break and talking with her parents, Rodgers decided not to play her senior year.

“It was really a good time for me,” she said. “I got to be a college student, got to figure out what I really wanted to do. I got my love for the game back.”

After college, Rodgers started teaching at Niles North High School in Skokie, Ill. She also coached softball and freshman girls basketball. Three years later, New Trier hired her as head softball coach, and she also was an assistant girls basketball coach under Hall of Famer John Schneiter. She succeeded Schneiter in 1997.

Despite Rodgers’ rapid climb to a head coaching job and success at New Trier, coaching in college hasn’t interested her.

“I never felt like it was the best fit for me,” Rodgers said. “As much as basketball is important to me and I love it, one of the things I value about my life is that there’s so much more that I enjoy doing.”

Her zest for a life away from coaching trickles down to her current New Trier players.

“Rodge stresses that the relationships we make off the court and the lessons we learn from basketball are going to be a lot more important 20 or 30 years from now,” senior guard Katherine Gjertsen said. “We’re going to remember the team we were a lot more than the scores of our games.”

Rodgers also pays close attention to the amount of fun her players have on and off the court. This week, instead of a Wednesday practice, the Trevians are going bowling. Rodgers’ 7-year old daughter, Norah, had suggested go-karting.

“If people are so focused on the scholarship or the winning or the playing time or the stats, I think that gets in the way of why we’re out here,” Rodgers said.

Another cornerstone of Rodgers’ coaching is her focus on finding roles for all of her players.

Junior guard Daniela Sirott acknowledged her lack of playing time in games this year, but said she still feels like she has a purpose.

“In practice if you play hard, you make the people who get more playing time better and it’s still fun,” Sirott said. “I’ve had the most fun ever on this team.”

Added Gjertsen: “Whether you’re playing every second of the game or you don’t see the court as much, [Rodgers] makes everyone feel like they’re a part of the team and we all have a role. It just shows how she possesses a confidence in herself that radiates to us and allows us to feel comfortable.”

It’s the same feeling a young Teri Rodgers had at her fifth grade basketball tryout – a fearlessness and certainty in herself.

“That’s always been in the forefront of my mind, wanting to present to my young girls, my athletes that you can be strong, you can be feminine, you can be confident, you can be whatever you want,” Rodgers said. “That’s definitely something that I hope I’ve helped the kids be. Just confident young women.”

Photo at top: New Trier coach Teri Rodgers addresses her team from the middle of the huddle during a timeout against Libertyville High School. (Giuliana Allegrotti/MEDILL)