There are a lot of new faces this season on the Chicago Force roster, including recruits from local flag football leagues and several international players.
But the team carries the same drive to land back in the championship game of the Women's Football Alliance ( WFA ).
This is the team's 14th season and the Force has been nothing short of a perennial powerhouse. Chicago entered the season with a 108-25 overall record, and has already won its first two road games of the season. Just consider the power of this Force:
The team has never had a losing season.
The team has won eight division titles, three conference championships and one national championship.
In the history of women's football, Chicago holds the record for most points scored in a season ( 771 ), largest margin of victory overall ( 3,728 ) and in a season ( 643 ) and largest margin of victory in a playoff game ( 84 ); it is also tied for most shutouts ( 55 games ).
"On paper, we look pretty good [this season], although you never have as much depth as you'd like," said Force owner Linda Bache. "If we can avoid injuries, I like our chances. Our goal every year is to win the national championship and that's an attainable goal for us."
But it certainly won't be an easy road. "This is by far the most competitive regular-season schedule we've had," Bache said. "We play three of the top teams in the league: Boston Renegades, Pittsburgh Passion and the defending champion DC Divas."
The Force home opener is Saturday, April 30, against the Columbus Comets. Kickoff at Lane Stadium on the campus of Lane Tech High School, 2501 W. Addison St., is at 5 p.m.
"We've lost a handful of veteran players for various reasons," Bache said. "Roz Bennett ( OL ) retired. Jeanette Gray is our all-world receiver and it's not yet clear if she will be able to play this season. Due to work conflicts running backs Cassey Brick and Brandy Hatcher are unlikely to play this season. And linebacker Melissa Nelson is in the police academy and thus unable to play.
"We've done a very good job bringing in more talent, but it's hard to replace that level of talent and experience."
Some key newcomers who have joined the Force from flag football are Tamika Robinson ( RB ), Emma Vanderheyden ( RB ), Ashlea Lane ( WR ) and Alli Alberts ( WR/S ). The team also has a contingent of seven international players, including second-year players Sonja Drangsholt ( Norway ), Anke Kutzscher ( Germany ) and Aynslee Rodger ( New Zealand ).
Drangsholt was the defensive rookie of the year last season.
Chicago also features Mariola Weiser ( Czech Republic ) and three Australians: Zoe Barnes, Daniela Stosic and Tracy Day.
"Football is an American sport that is becoming huge internationally," Bache said. "We are committed to being a leader in providing opportunities for women from all over the world to come to Chicago to receive top coaching and to play against elite competition."
The Force is once again coached by John Konecki, who is in his eighth season and boasts an .8625 winning percentage. The assistants are Mario Coleman, Bill Smith, Al Maldonado and Carlos Jones.
"We have greater team speed than ever before," Bache said. "The key for the new players is getting as many reps as possible to accelerate the learning curve, which means they have to attend practices, study film and prepare consistently."
The Force went 9-2 last season and fell one game short, losing in the conference championship to the eventual champion.
Quarterback Rasan Gore returns to lead the Force attack. She was the Conference Offensive Player of the Year in 2015, throwing 32 touchdowns and also rushing for 23 TDs.
"Our offense this year is designed to utilize our speed by forcing teams to play sideline to sideline," Bache said. "Gore is a threat on every play, so opposing defenses have to account for her at all times."
Last year's team MVP, Jamie Fornal, returns at receiver, kick/punt return and will also see some action on defense.
The backfield features two rookies: Tamika Robinson and Emma Vanderheyden. The offensive line has three returning starters: Dawn Pederson, Cat Converse and Leeann Bluske.
Second-year receiver Kelly Moore has looked very good thus far and newcomer Alli Alberts will have an impact at receiver and/or safety, Bache said. First-year Aussie import Zoe Barnes could get a lot of touches on offense and fellow Australians Tracy Day and Daniela Stosic can play offensive and defensive line. Sure-handed Carolyn Lee returns at receiver and is also helping out on defense. Last year's Most Improved Player, Jill Airaki, will be contributing on offense, defense and special teams.
"Our defense is also emphasizing speed this season," Bache said. "We have some key veteran talent returning in Kelsey Casey ( Defensive MVP ), Angel Smith ( Defensive Lineman of the Year ), Kim Marks, Elisha Okrey, Mary Choules, Jill Airaki, Dorian Bridges, Jamie Menzyk. Tami Engelman and Sonja Drangsholt. In addition, first-year linebacker Ericka Johnson will contribute and former Force defensive specialist Jen Dulski is back on the team and will be an impact player.
"We want special teams to be a contributing factor for us every week," Bache said. "Our kick coverage teams have to be solid and our kick return teams should provide good field position and hopefully some scores as well. Jamie Fornal is our veteran kick returner and she needs to take charge and be assertive."
The WFA is using a new playoff format this year and is dividing the league into three divisions. "We play in the top division which will feature the best 12 teams in the league," Bache said. "The second division is for teams from mid-size markets with average roster size and several years of experience. The third division is for newer teams with smaller rosters."