The National Football League hired its first female official in 2015, and the Buffalo Bills hired the first full-time female assistant coach in January.
So, with the penultimate professional game -- Super Bowl 50 -- on tap this weekend, it only seemed appropriate to visit with a couple of Stateline area women who in recent years have joined hundreds of others around the country in realizing their dream of playing football.
Although it wasn’t their goal, two Walworth County residents’ love for the sport is helping change stereotypes and turning heads.
Alexandra Bjelopetrovich of Whitewater and Kara Haines of East Troy are members of the Madison Blaze, an entrant in the five-team Midwest Conference of the Independent Women’s Football League.
“I definitely believe that the ladies of the IWFL and WFA -- Women’s Football Alliance -- are erasing the stereotype of women and football,” Haines said. “Most everyone I tell reacts funny like, ‘No way, are you serious?’ And I’m like so serious. It is intriguing to most, which is good, because most are like, ‘Well, you’re girls,’ so it’s not as good. But when they come see it, they are like, ‘Holy c---, this is legit!’”
Bjelopetrovich agreed that progress has been made, but work remains.
“I think we are making great strides in defeating stereotypes about women in football,” the Lake Forest, Illinois, native said. “The reaction I normally get is, ‘Wow, that’s really cool,’ and then the next statement is normally, ‘I didn’t know Madison had a team.’ So there is still a great deal of work to be done as far as increasing exposure and spreading the word.”
Meanwhile, the team conducted tryouts and began workouts in January in preparation for the start of the season in early April.
That means, despite their experience, putting in a lot of hard work because they know the competition won’t get any easier.
“The competition in this league is higher compared to other sports I’ve participated in simply because we are all fighting to show how great women’s football is,” Bjelopetrovich said. “And because it’s not as well known, we get less opportunities to show people. So when we get a chance, we really turn up the heat and make sure it’s worth your while.”
Haines echoed those thoughts.
“All these girls are B-A-D,” Haines said. “A lot of women say, ‘Oh, I like football, but I could never play.’ So for us who do play, we are a special, unique, tough group of women.”
And these two have been mainstays for the Blaze.
Bjelopetrovich is starting her third year with the organization. She has performed everywhere along the offensive line but prefers the center position.
“My strengths are being a good leader and role model and setting an example of what women’s football is all about,” Bjelopetrovich said. “I also believe that one of my biggest strengths is making people laugh and making it fun, because if it’s not fun, who’s going to want to do it? I would like to improve in all aspects of the game. I learn something new every day of every season and want to make sure that I’m never not learning something new.”
The multipurpose and multitalented Haines is more often in the spotlight, playing running back, quarterback and punt and kickoff returner, not to mention as a long snapper and defensive back.
“I love to contribute in any way I can,” Haines said. “I love offense and defense. As long as I’m out on the field, I love playing anywhere.”
Regardless of their roles, both have helped the Blaze become one of the league’s top franchises. And they said participating in the playoffs makes them hungrier to keep playing.
“We have been very successful … one of the top four teams (out of 35 to 40) in the league the past three years,” Haines said. “Competing in the playoffs is what you work hard for all season. It’s a huge honor and rewarding. The playoffs have been the best sports experience I’ve ever had in my life. The level of play is at an all-time high, and the competition is the best in the league. I get to see this beautiful country and play a sport I love. Last year we went to Houston, Salt Lake City and the Carolinas. There’s nothing better.”
Bjelopetrovich said being in the playoffs has been a great experience.
“I have had the opportunity to travel to a lot of new places and played with the best of the best,” she said. “It’s like family vacation with 45 people. It’s a lot of fun.”
It’s that combination of camaraderie and competition that keep both women, lifelong athletes, coming back for more action.
Bjelopetrovich played boys baseball and basketball and was captain of the wrestling team in grade school, moving to Whitewater in seventh grade. She then played tennis, basketball and softball for the Whippets.
Bjelopetrovich underwent reconstructive surgery twice, suffering torn anterior cruciate ligaments in both knees as a prep, but she has avoided any major injuries with the Blaze.
“I always wanted to play football, and when I got into high school was planning on trying out,” said Bjelopetrovich, a clinical systems analyst for UW Health who counts being a paranormal investigator as one of her hobbies. “But my mom drew the line for some reason. I searched online for women’s football and the Madison Blaze came up. I would love to play as long as humanly possible.”
Haines is an East Troy native who earned 13 letters for the Trojans, participating in golf, tennis, basketball, soccer and track. She attended UW-Waukesha for a semester, where she played soccer on the co-ed team just for fun.
“I really went to play basketball, which I did,” Haines said. “Then shortly after first semester, I figured school wasn’t for me.”
That led her to football. She played one year with the Wisconsin Warriors, but then latched onto the Blaze, who were called the Cougars at the time.
“Going into my first year I really just wanted to do something fun to stay in shape, and it turned out to be more serious than I intended,” Haines said. “I’m a competitive person, so that was a good thing for me.”
It’s part of the equation, but competing in an individual sport or event often involves more than winning the battle of mind over matter. Sometimes it involves balancing the two.
“It’s a matter of swimming my race, because I’m the only one in the blocks,” Whitewater High School senior Benny Liang said.
Nobody knows that more than Joan Domitrz, who is in her seventh season in charge of the school’s boys swimming program. She has coached with the Janesville YMCA and the J-Hawk Aquatic Club and was the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater men’s and women’s coach for 10 years.
BELOIT -- Stacy Schmidt’s record stood for nearly a quarter century. On Jan. 16, Lana Wieseman blew past it to become Beloit College’s all-time women’s basketball career scorer.
The 6-foot-1 senior forward needed nine points, and she poured in 32 during a 62-58 road loss to Illinois College, reaching the 30-point mark for a fourth time as a Buccaneer.
Wieseman, a Badger High School graduate, drained a three-pointer at the 4:35 mark of the second quarter to put her name atop another statistical category.
They spend most of their waking hours as moms and career women -- jobs that often require toughness and tough love. However, two or three nights per week and one Saturday evening a month, they accept roles as jammers and blockers, a completely different physicality, and the bumps and bruises that go with it.
They’re members of the Beloit Bombshells, a roller derby team that doesn’t belong to a sanctioned league but follows Women’s Flat Track Derby Association rules.
Beloit’s next bout will be Jan. 30, a match against the Cedar Rapids Roller Girls at its home rink, the Skatin’ Station on Inman Parkway in Beloit.
BELOIT -- The Beloit Snappers will celebrate their 35th anniversary season in 2016 when they kick off their schedule at home against the rival Wisconsin Timber Rattlers at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, April 7.
The Snappers, who will be in their fourth year as an Oakland A’s affiliate in the Class A Midwest League, host the Rattlers the next evening and then finish off the home-and-home series with two contests at Fox Cities Stadium in Grand Chute.
However, the Snappers hope to get Stateline area fans excited about minor league baseball again with their 12th annual Hot Stove banquet. The event will be held Tuesday, Feb. 2, at the Garden Hotel Conference Center, 200 Dearborn Ave. in South Beloit, Illinois. Activities begin at 5:15 p.m. and include a cocktail hour, buffet-style dinner, guest speakers and live and silent auctions.
It was another successful year for Stateline area athletes and teams in 2015.
This week’s Sports page will focus on boys/men’s accomplishments from the past calendar year. It will be their turn in the spotlight after our top girls/women’s athletes were recognized Dec. 27.
So, here are some of the stories that made news during the past 12 months, not necessarily in any order.
Janesville Craig baseball
Victor Herbst’s Cougars finished off a Cinderella season at 29-1 with the school’s fourth WIAA Division 1/Class A state championship.
It was another banner year for Stateline area athletes and teams in 2015, and this year we are splitting up the many highlights.
This week’s Sports page will focus on girls/women’s accomplishments from the past calendar year. In our first issue of the new year, it will be the boys/men’s turn in the spotlight.
So, here are some of the best stories that made the news during the past 12 months, not necessarily in any order, although the first entry gets the nod for the No. 1 spot.
It was the fourth straight season that a Stateline area team from the Rock Valley Conference qualified for the WIAA Division 3 girls state basketball tournament.
Unlike Ralphie Parker, star of the 1983 holiday classic “The Christmas Story,” yours truly always believed a football was a great present to receive Dec. 25.
Peter Billingsley’s character dreamed of ripping open an official Red Ryder carbine-action, 200-shot, range-model air rifle and getting off spectacular hip shots in his backyard in northwestern Indiana during the early 1940s.
Millions of Cheeseheads worldwide rode the same emotional roller coaster that he did every week for 16 years in Green Bay, and most fans would do it again for one Brett Lorenzo Favre.
Peyton Manning has surpassed several of No. 4’s National Football League records, and several others may do the same during the next few years. However, no one will match the iconic status or the gunslinger mentality of the quarterback from Kiln, Mississippi -- or his 336 interceptions. Favre’s toughness and kid-on-the-sandlot playing style were unmatched, at least at the QB position, and it helped the Packers reach the postseason 11 times during his stay.
Some left the Green and Gold bandwagon, and have never jumped back on, after Favre’s messy divorce from the team that ushered in the Aaron Rodgers era. But his season in New York and two years with rival Minnesota -- along with his many off-the-field transgressions, such as substance abuse issues and a sexual harassment lawsuit -- may not have been forgotten but have been forgiven by most.
Big 8 Football
Parker OL Mylik Williams, Jr.; Parker running back DJ Vance (Offensive Back of Year), Jr.; Beloit P Matthew Wedig, Fr.
Parker OL Alonzo Velazquez, Jr.; Craig OL Brady Trapp, Sr.; Beloit OL Matt Vieth, Jr.; Craig running back Aristide Serrano, Sr.; Parker DL Alex Perkins, Sr.; Parker DE Dayton Jensen, Sr.; Parker ILB Ed Jacobson, Jr.; Parker OLB Evan Teubert, Sr.; Beloit DB Tyler Curtis-Dupuis, Jr.; Craig DB Peter Larson, Sr.