Bittinger’s long journey leads to D1 scholarship
But underneath her bubbly personality, Bittinger is an extraordinarily driven and highly competitive student-athlete who has the persistence of a cat hunting a mouse. One of her previous coaches described her as “the nicest mean girl on the field.”
Bittinger is a soccer phenom locally, one who has stood out from the group since she started kicking a ball around as a 4-year-old in Appleton, Wisconsin, where she lived at the time.
Fourteen years later, Bittinger has risen to great heights as a player. And the dream that she put her entire being into achieving came to fruition Thursday when she signed a Division 1 soccer scholarship with Central Michigan University.
Surrounding by a group of friends from Kingsford High School and her father John, her mother Betsy and her younger sister Megan, Bittinger basked in the moment, with that smile plastered across her face.
“It is surreal,” she said.
An apt description, given Bittinger’s path to that day. While some high-level prep standouts cruise through their high school years, the 18-year-old from Iron Mountain did not. In fact, her story is one of hope and pain and struggle, as well as accomplishment.
In the summer before her freshman year at Kingsford High School, Bittinger suffered a devastating knee injury in which she tore her left anterior cruciate ligament, her medial collateral ligament and her meniscus while playing for her club team, FC Green Bay, at a tournament in Iowa.
“It was the second game of the day and we were all very tired,” Brooke began. “I went up to guard a girl and she went one way and my body tried to follow her, but my knee went the complete opposite (way). I blacked out on the ground and I remember waking up to my coach.”
Bittinger was helped off the field, struggling to walk on her own.
“We just thought it would go away, but she couldn’t walk and we carried her into the car,” said her father John, a Kingsford graduate who skied collegiately at the University of New Hampshire.
A trainer on location looked at Brooke’s knee and didn’t think it was anything serious, that possibly she had sprained her IT band, an injury which would not require surgery.
“There was no initial pain,” Brooke said. “What brought me the most discomfort was walking and my leg giving out. So it was more of an ‘Oh, my gosh, what’s going on?'”
“We had no idea how bad it was,” added Betsy, who ironically suffered a similar knee injury while skiing in her 20s.
The idea that Brooke’s injury would be insignificant vanished when the Bittingers arrived back home. Brooke had an MRI done.
“Right away they let us know,” she said. “And I remember just being absolutely crushed because (surgery’s) a full-year recovery.”
Turns out, the surgery needed would be delicate because the growth plate in an adolescent’s knee is the last portion of the bones to harden, according to the OrthoInfo website.
After making several attempts to locate a surgeon, the family decided to take Brooke to Andrews Sports Medicine and Orthopedic Center in Alabama, a nationally recognized leader in dealing with sports injuries.
After making the choice, there was no time to waste.
“They said they wanted to see her immediately because it was a fresh ACL,” Betsy said. “They deal with growth plates all the time.”
The night before the surgery, Brooke lay in bed in the hotel room unable to sleep. She was afraid of going under anesthesia and she was terrified of what her knee would be like afterwards. She was even more frightened of who would she be afterward.
“I was a full tomboy,” Brooke explained. “I don’t remember a day when I didn’t wear like U.S. Women’s National Team (gear). (USNWT star) Alex Morgan was my idol. I always had my hair in a pony tail, I never wore my hair down.”
With all this ricocheting through her mind, Brooke underwent the surgery, one week after she suffered her injury. She remembers waking up afterward with “the most pain I’ve ever experienced.” She said she sat up out of her hospital bed to use the restroom and vomited.
“I wanted to cut my leg off right there it hurt so bad,” she said. “I felt completely lost. I just couldn’t stop crying, for like weeks. I was just never happy, I was always sad. I just wanted to get back to where I was.”
That would eventually happen. But the journey there would test Brooke’s mettle to the core.
First she would not be released to play again for at least a year. When she did get back on the pitch to practice with her club at the time, FC Green Bay, she felt lost, her confidence shattered.
“One of the things that stood out about me was my speed, and I was not fast (anymore). I had to wear this huge brace. I was getting knocked over. It was awful.”
Beside regaining her speed and building her strength to where she could regain her strong kick, Brooke had to deal with the mental challenge — the apprehension that her knee wouldn’t hold up, the worry she would never be the player she was, the depression of possibly seeing her dream vanish — not to mention the physical pain of a year of rehab exercises.
That was not the only hitch in Brooke’s return to the pitch. After missing her entire freshman year undergoing rehab, Bittinger then lost her chance to return for her sophomore season at Kingsford when the campaign was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
When she finally did return to competitive play in the fall of 2020 with FCGB, she performed poorly, in her estimation. So much so, she seriously thought of giving up her dream.
At that point, Brooke was disappointed, depressed and had little belief in her ability anymore.
Despite all that, she never gave in. Seems that is just not in her nature.
“People don’t know what she went through with her rehab,” Kingsford girls varsity soccer coach Jon Lorenzoni said. “I saw her in the gym by herself, or just me and her dad. She took everything very seriously but she pushed through that.”
“She’s the hardest worker I’ve ever seen,” her father added.
While returning to her prep team was vital to Brooke, she’s had larger soccer ambitions for years. She’s gone from the little girl kicking into a goal that was set up in her yard in Appleton to the youth levels like SAY soccer, to making the Northern Stars Spring U-10 team when she was eight, to playing for FC Green Bay, to making the Wisconsin Olympic Development Team.
Her biggest accomplishment in her developing years, came when she made North Shore United’s U19 out of Cedarburg, Wisconsin last summer. Being on that club gave Brooke the opportunity to play in front of collegiate coaches.
However, the commitment to travel to the Milwaukee area for practices during the week was immense. It required Brooke to miss classes, travel constantly (19,000 miles this fall, her father said) and to often do her homework in the car or at her friend’s home in Appleton on her way back to the U.P. Despite that, Brooke maintained her 4.0 grade point average.
When a coach at North Shore United called John to ask if the family was ready for the overwhelming commitment, he responded quickly.
“I have absolutely no idea how we’ll do it, but we will get her to every practice,” he answered.
And they have. However, along with the commitment came some problems back home. Though she was able to participate in last fall’s Homecoming at Kingsford High School, Brooke has missed much of her high-school life the past year and a half. Plus, despite the support of her close friends, at times some of her peers didn’t understand what she was doing and why, leading to hurtful criticism. At times, she felt like she’d drifted from her friends and her home.
“Honestly, I have really good friends, but it was hard during the fall season (at North Shore),” she said. “But then I got closer with them come December and through the wintertime. And they’ll be lifelong friends.”
But the point of the whole commitment, no matter the consequences, was to pursue her dream of playing Division 1 soccer.
By her fall senior season, that had become a realistic possibility. Bittinger knew she had the ability, the mental fortitude and the competitiveness to do so. She just needed to play against upper-level players and be seen by D1 coaches.
And she was. Brooke was offered scholarships by both CMU and the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. Collegiate coaches were impressed by her one-versus-one defending and her confidence on the ball, vital skills to playing her position of centerback.
Though she’s always sought this opportunity, Brooke may have never received a shot at the highest level of collegiate soccer if not for her return to the Flivvers last season. The girl, who was nicknamed “Big Foot” as a child for her ability to kick the ball so far, had not played prep soccer at all until last spring. Still, she quickly assimilated with her friends and teammates and together they captured Kingsford’s first U.P. championship.
Brooke said her rejoining her Flivver teammates last spring was the key to her rebirth as a player.
“After the injury and a very rough season at FCGB, my confidence was shot. I felt like I was running around in circles. I was just at that point where I was mentally done with the game.
“But honestly, playing with the girls I grew up playing with, and being on the team with one of my best friends, Maria Fornetti, and being around just the fun of the sport instead of the seriousness of the sport, grew my confidence. I found my love for it, I found my passion for it.”
Now, Brooke sits on the precipice of starting her career at the D1 level. After her final high school season is complete, she will first compete with her North Shore United U19 squad in the 2022 US Youth Soccer National Championships at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida in July.
Once her club has completed play in that tournament, Brooke will head to Mount Pleasant to join her new Chippewa teammates.
On her signing day, Brooke reflected on that and her remarkable journey as a whole.
“I feel a lot of relief because growing up I’ve always wanted to achieve this dream. The obstacles that I’ve gone through, mentally at some points I didn’t think I could do it. Now sitting here and signing those papers making it official, it’s awesome. I feel great.”
And with that, the beaming smile has returned.
Jerry DeRoche can be reached at 906-774-2772, ext. 247, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.