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Feature story: Wheaton Warrenville South finds soccer sanctuary in Tiger Den

By Tomas Moran, Wheaton Warrenville South student journalist, 11/01/23, 3:30PM CDT


WHEATON -- Up a stairwell and behind a large door in the physical education hallway at Wheaton Warrenville South, you’ll find a gathering room dedicated to the school's history, memories and accomplishments in The Beautiful Game. Coach Guy Callipari has started yet another new tradition for his program with a team room called the Tiger Den. 

The space is a rare luxury for any sports team, much less a high school soccer team. Most programs don’t typically have an area dedicated for their use.

The players have latched on to the concept quickly.

“It’s a place where we like to build as a team together,” senior forward and team captain Erik Crisostomo said. “The mindset it brings to us before a game, I think it’s good. It pretty much locks us in. Everything around us is just soccer.”

The team meets there before every game in order to discuss the challenge ahead. The gathering place allows the players and coaches to get on the same page. The starting lineup, game plan and objectives are laid out and discussed. Reaching the desired mentality before a match is key for success, and these meetings seek to achieve that in a collaborative manner.

“It focuses you up instead of being in just a random classroom,” senior defender and team captain Brooks Becker said. “Your environment is soccer in that room, so you really don’t have any other choice but to participate and get ready for the game.”

The space was christened last spring at the start of the girls season. The need arose after the classroom previously used for pregame meetings was no longer available. The girls’ team welcomed the chance to utilize a soccer-specific space after head coach Guy Callipari arranged for meetings to be held there.

“Through the girls’ season, it took on a new life,” Callipari said. “Consequently, we now have a space that carries our tradition, our equipment, which helps us prepare a mindset that is worthy of those past and a direction going forward.”

The past is represented by an impressive collection of memorabilia, which gives the room multiple purposes. Part Hall of Fame, part museum and part meeting room, the new addition to the program has sentimental and functional values. 

Some relics date back to 1970, providing a blast from the past of Tigers soccer history. Various tournament trophies are featured, as well all five generations of scarves and soccer balls. 

“(It has) all the past uniforms and the progressions of how the uniforms, or the scarves, the spirit wear changed,” Becker said. “It really shows you the tradition and the lineage of how this program has developed.”

An oddity is a Lucky Charms box with various players’ and coaches’ faces placed on it. Its history stretches back to the 1999 girls season. Following the tradition, the 2024 girls team will select a slogan for the year and decorate the box with pictures of the coaching staff and players. In the past it was stored at a player’s home, but now it has a permanent residence where everyone can enjoy it.

What was a simple storage room has been transformed into a shrine dominated by the school's orange and black. The room has a pleasant mix of history and whimsy, but when the team meets there to pregame, it becomes all business.

The history of the program looms large, as past and present mix with an eye toward the future. Current players are reminded of those who came before them and the importance to carry on the legacy that has been left behind. 

“We have memories from the past years that Wheaton Warrenville South has accomplished. Number nine was Charlie Fajkus, one of the well-known guys,” senior midfielder and team captain Edgar Guzman said.

The school's most famous futbol alumnus, Fajkus led the Tigers to their greatest result when he and the 1974 team finished second in the state final. He still holds school records for career goals (58) and assists (56), even though he only played two seasons at Wheaton Warrenville South after transferring his junior year. His number nine is the only one retired in any sport in Wheaton Warrenville South athletics history.

No. 9 jerseys featuring Fajkus' signature are displayed proudly in the Tiger Den. Since 1982, the jerseys have appeared at Wheaton North, various locations at Wheaton Warrenville South, and most recently before the Tiger Den opened, in a desk drawer at coach Callipari's house. 

After high school, Fajkus played at Indiana University and then played professionally in the North American Soccer League (NASL) and the Major Indoor Soccer League for a combined 11 years. He was a member of the 1981 NASL championship team with the Chicago Sting, where he played for most of his career. Fajkus also represented the United States on the Men’s National Team on three occasions. 

Another program legend honored in the Tiger Den is trailblazer Christine Tomek. When there was no girls’ team at Wheaton Warrenville South, she was a member of the boys’ team. She was an all-conference selection from 1979-81 and was the first female player to score in an IHSA boys’ varsity soccer match. 

Despite being allowed to play throughout the season, the IHSA decided to not permit Tomek to play in the playoffs. Regardless, Tomek was a huge contributor to the movement to start a girls’ soccer team at Wheaton Warrenville South, which finally began in 1987.

Tomek continued her athletic career at Iowa, where she played softball. She transferred to George Mason, where she got back on the pitch. In 1985, she was a member of the school's NCAA women’s soccer champions and was selected as an NSCAA Second-Team All-American in 1986. Tomek went on to earn 12 caps with the United States Women’s National team.

Soccer players who are members of the Wheaton Warrenville South Athletic Hall of Fame are also honored in the Tiger Den. They are: Jake Declute (Class of 1995), Brooke Bell-Bean (1997), Rachel Radcliffe (2001), Therese Heaton-Sheidt (2002) and Randall Babb (2008). 

“The Tiger Den needs to carry the traditions that we want to carry into competition as a reminder of those (from the) past, giving us direction as to where we’re going,” Callipari said. “It’s them (Fajkus and Tomek) that we look to as inspiration. It’s more than (players) just wearing their name on the back, it’s playing for the badge on their chest.”

High school soccer rarely receives this kind of space, despite the positive effects it could have on teams. 

Some activities utilize an area of the school that is specific for them. At Wheaton Warrenville South the performing arts have an auditorium, and the football team has a designated part of the locker room. These spaces help students involved in those activities focus on their task and maximize their opportunities. That's been absent for soccer at the school until now. Not only does the Tiger Den allow a dedicated space for team meetings, but it gives the players a place to learn about the program and its culture, to speak up and lead the team, and set a positive path for future Tigers. 

“Something that’s been lost over the years, in the high school, is not having a go-to,” Callipari said. “We’re using soccer as a catalyst to develop leadership, community leaders. It’s something that no other sport has offered, or provided. So, for us, it makes it that much more special.”

Future soccer players and teams at Wheaton Warrenville South will add to the room’s history. The Wheaton Warrenville South soccer program has found a place to call home. It serves as a reminder to the players of what, and who, they are representing every time they go out on the pitch.

The 2023 boys’ season has come to a close for the Tigers, signifying the end of the seniors’ tenure as Wheaton Warrenville South soccer players.

“I’m just gonna mostly remember going up there with the guys, just kinda messing around, you know also getting serious before a game,” said Becker. “I’m definitely gonna miss everyone getting serious and getting each other in the right mindset.”

The Tiger Den will now lay dormant, serving mostly as a storage unit, until the spring, when the girls’ season commences and Wheaton Warrenville South soccer reawakens.

“I’m looking forward to the pregame meetings that we have with coach Cal and all the girls,” said senior midfielder Mia Harbert. “It’s just really fun to see what everyone’s saying. What inspiring quote do you bring? I think it’s gonna grow in a good way.”

Her coach agrees.

“It’s a work in progress, I’m sure it’ll take on many forms as we go through,” Callipari said. “I think it brings us together. That’s the idea, and it ties in our history with our future. Consequently, I think it’s a great place to be.”