Decision of a Lifetime: Christie Rampone's First Call-Up to The U.S. Women's National Team
U.S. captain Christie Rampone had to make a very difficult decision during her senior year in college. Should she stay or should she go? She went. Thus started the international career of one of the greatest -- and most unlikely -- players in U.S. Women’s National Team history.
Aug. 1, 2008
It was a chilly night in January of 1997 when the team bus carrying the Monmouth University Women’s Basketball Team rattled down the New Jersey Parkway headed for Exit 105.
The Hawks had just beaten Long Island University in Northeast Conference play and the team’s co-captain and starting point guard Christie Pearce was relaxing in the back of the bus.
Pearce was thinking about the game, her sore body and perhaps what would make for a good late night snack. Little did she know her life was about to change forever.
Flashback 10 years to the quiet Jersey shore town of Point Pleasant Boro, N.J. See that tomboy running around the neighborhood and down to the rec center, playing pickup basketball, soccer, kickball and stickball? It’s the same girl who was in a contest to see how many laps the kids could run at recess in elementary school. She ran with the boys. No girl could come close to keeping up.
At Point Pleasant Boro High School, she would become a three-sport star, leading her teams in scoring in basketball, soccer and field hockey.
Field hockey was in the fall, along with soccer tournaments and games on the weekends for her travel team. In the winter, she hit the hardwood and developed an all-around hoops game that produced a whopping 2,190 career points. In the spring, it was time for high school soccer. The summer was more travel soccer and AAU and pick-up basketball before pre-season for field hockey began once again.
“I think that ability to compete was instilled at a very young age,” said Christie, who married Chris Rampone in 2001. “I just really enjoyed being outside and playing. I just had that innate desire to win all the time. Whether it was a board game or a pickup game, it was a bad day if I lost.”
By the time she graduated, she was considered the finest female athlete ever in Ocean County history and was named the New Jersey Female Athlete of the Year.
Her legendary prep exploits earned a full basketball scholarship to Monmouth, where she played just two sports, starting all 80 games in her soccer career as a forward while scoring 79 goals with 54 assists. While she found great success on the soccer field, Pearce was a basketball player. She attended basketball camps not soccer camps. It was her No. 1 sport.
On the collegiate level, her hoops game evolved from scorer to tenacious defender (she still holds the Monmouth season record for steals). She was a player who did the hard work for her teammates while leading through her actions and hustle.
As a senior, she had become a co-captain. Her understanding of how to compete had been honed through thousands of hours of practice and hundreds of games in all different sports, all the while supported and guided by her dad Rob, an elementary school baseball, basketball and cross-country coach.
All that experience had prepared her for the moment when she was summoned to the front of the bus by her Monmouth basketball coach, Sue DeKalb.
Or had it?
Her coach held a flimsy piece of paper.
“We got a fax from U.S. Soccer,” she said. “Inviting you to training camp.”
Turns out then U.S. head coach Tony DiCicco had seen Pearce play in a college match, and with a dearth of defenders at that time, was looking for athletic attackers that he could convert into backs. He decided to take a flyer on the 5-foot-6 striker from the Jersey Shore.
The fax machine whirred, spitting out that fateful piece of paper in the athletic department in West Long Branch, N.J. It made its way into the hands of DeKalb, and then to Pearce on the front of that bus.
But she was right in the middle of her conference basketball season. She was a co-captain. It was her senior year. Could she leave her team for what was certainly a long-shot at her dream of playing for the U.S. National Team? There are few games of chance in Las Vegas with longer odds. Suffice it to say, when you put the words “UNC, Santa Clara, Monmouth, Portland and Notre Dame” in a sentence about college women’s soccer, one doesn’t quite fit.
She agonized over the decision and had numerous conversations with the coaches and administrators. This kind of conundrum was new to a small school like Monmouth. Understandably, DeKalb didn’t want to lose her star point guard, but she realized the uniqueness of the opportunity. She put the decision in Christie’s hands, or more appropriately, at her feet.
No, she couldn’t go. She had made a commitment to the basketball team.
Yes, she would go. She could not pass up such an opportunity.
No, she would finish her season and hopefully get a tryout later.
Yes, she was going. She couldn’t take the chance that another tryout would come.
Nope. Basketball is the top sport at Monmouth and she was staying.
On the other hand, it was only for 10 days. She would only miss a few games.
No, the folks had Monmouth had given her so much. She wanted to give back.
Then one of the folks at Monmouth said to go would be giving back.
Pearce had developed a close relationship with the men’s basketball coach at that time, Wayne Szoke.
“You gotta do this,” said coach Szoke in a moment wrought with foresight. “Put all else aside right now, this could be your future. This is something special and you have to see if can play at that level.”
Pearce was used to going from sport to sport to sport, from season to season. She never had to choose between two before. So, she called her teammates together in the locker room and explained the situation.
“I told them that this was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up,” said Rampone. “I told them that I hoped they understood and that it was a dream to play at the highest level. I said unfortunately, the timing is now and I can’t wait to go over the summer when we’re not in season. This could be my only shot.”
Some were incredibly supportive. Some, not understanding the process of National Team call-ups and selection, were not.
“Once I started getting consistent call-ups, they came to understand,” said Rampone. “When you are in college, your season is everything, but I had to try to see a big picture. Once-in-a-lifetime opportunities are just that.”
She took the big risk and traveled to her first National Team camp in Chula Vista, Calif., without ever speaking to anyone with U.S. Soccer. She carried her mailed plane ticket and the fax, while famously bringing her own laundry detergent and training gear, unaware that gear would be provided for her, and washed, every day. She didn’t even know that the veterans of the 1996 Olympic gold medal team would be there. She was under the impression that it was some sort of a tryout camp for graduating seniors.
“Hi, I’m Mia…and you are?”
“Ummm…Christie. Pearce. From New Jersey.”
“What school do you go to?”
“What division is that?”
While she didn’t utter more than a few words during the entire camp, it was clear right away that she had the athleticism and mentality to compete at the international level. These were gold medalists. She was hanging in there. Despite being one of the most unlikely U.S. Women’s National Team players ever, she made an impression.
DiCicco called her two weeks later – igniting another wave of decisions and conversations with her coaches and teammates -- inviting her to travel with the USA to Australia that February.
This time, she knew that destiny had given her a fast break. She would earn her first three caps in Australia.
From the Jersey Shore to the Gold Coast? That’s quite a journey, but it was only just beginning.
She would end up missing half of her conference basketball games.
“That was definitely one of the hardest times in my life,” said Rampone, who would go on to make the historic 1999 Women’s World Cup Team, which played its first match of that tournament in front of a sold out crowd at Giants Stadium in New Jersey. “I was committed to two teams. One is your dream, and one is your scholarship, your senior year. Sometimes you are faced with life choices that have long-term consequences, but you just don’t know it at the time. It was scary going into that first camp, but to accomplish great things you have to be brave.”
Rampone remains the one and only player from a small school ever to make an impact on the U.S. Women’s National Team.
Eleven years ago, no one could have predicted this kind of international success for the 33-year old. Yet on Aug. 6, she will lead her teammates onto the field as the captain of the U.S. team for the 2008 Olympics Games and is on pace to hit 200 caps during the tournament. She is a mother to precocious three-year-old daughter Rylie and an excellent role model for her teammates and the thousands of girls and women playing across the USA, especially those who play at small schools on the New Jersey coast.
So what if Rylie wants to play basketball and soccer?
“She can play whatever she wants,” said Rampone. “I was never pushed into anything. I did it because I loved to play. We’ll have her try soccer, gymnastics, baseball and we’ll see what she enjoys. But if she ever gets called into a National Team camp, she won’t be bringing laundry detergent.”