Girls Soccer: ‘She is Downers Grove North’ trailblazing player, beloved coach Christine Tomek retires after 28 years
All-State soccer, softball player at Wheaton Central twice led Downers North to state quarterfinals
By Matt Le Cren
Christine Tomek became a trailblazer not by choice but out of necessity.
Athletic opportunities for girls were limited when Tomek was growing up in Wheaton during the 1970s, but she didn’t let that stop her. She was an all-state softball player at Wheaton Central and also earned similar honors while playing for the boys soccer team.
Forty years later, Tomek is still making a difference, though one historic chapter of her life ended when she retired after 28 years of teaching health and coaching soccer at Downers Grove North. Her final day in the classroom was May 19, her 58th birthday, and her last game came five days later when North’s girls soccer team lost to Glenbard West in a sectional semifinal.
“I never really looked forward to retiring because I love teaching and I love coaching,” Tomek said. “Every day, I felt very thankful to have the opportunity to do what I did for a living.
“It’s still weird talking in the past tense. It’s been my life and my passion and my goal was to give everything I had, whether it’s in the classroom or sponsoring a club or coaching, every day. Hopefully I achieved that and made a difference in young people’s lives.”
Of that there can be no doubt. Tomek’s athletic resume alone would be an inspiration to all, but the impact of what she did during her teaching and coaching career will ripple far into the future.
Downers Grove North girls soccer coach Brian Papa, for whom Tomek was an assistant for the past six seasons, applied for his job in 2017 at Tomek’s urging.
“When I retired [from Lincoln-Way East], I did not want to be a head coach,” Papa said. “I wanted to be somebody’s assistant, but she talked me into applying for it.
“She just helped me tremendously.”
Papa has known Tomek for nearly 30 seasons, coaching against her in both boys and girls soccer and then with her.
“She is Downers Grove North,” Papa said. “She gets along with the girls as well as the guys.
“They all respect her. She’s a unique woman.”
Indeed, Tomek’s background is unrivaled. Because Wheaton Central did not have a girls soccer program at the time, Tomek played on the boys team. She was the first girl to score a goal in a boys varsity game and was the best player on the team, but she was not allowed to play in the postseason by the IHSA.
After graduating in 1982, Tomek got a full scholarship to play softball at Iowa, where she was a second team All-Big Ten outfielder in 1983. She later transferred to George Mason, where she led the soccer team to the 1985 national championship.
Tomek was a member of the first U.S women’s national team, which was formed in 1985. She made 12 appearances as a midfielder for the U.S. in 1986 and 1987 before beginning her teaching career in Virginia.
When her father, George, became ill, Tomek moved back to the area to be close to her family, taking a job at Waubonsie Valley. She came to Downers North in 1994 to become the girls soccer head coach and the following year took over the boys program.
Tomek was the second woman in Illinois to coach a varsity boys soccer team, following fellow Wheaton Central alumna Katie Keller, who coached at Batavia. She is the only woman in the Illinois High School Soccer Coaches Association, having been inducted as a player in 1996.
North’s boys enjoyed unprecedented success under Tomek, reaching the state quarterfinals for the first time in 2000 and again in 2001. Two of the star players from those teams, Mike Schmitt and Mike Corvo, are now the head coach and assistant coach, respectively.
“Out of all my coaches, she had if not the most, then definitely up there the most influence on me personally, taking a different angle and really dissecting it at more of a personal level,” Corvo said. “These players are human, they’re people, it’s not a business.
“We’re really shaping these boys and doing everything that we can to help turn them into young men.”
Men such as Schmitt and Corvo prove the value in having women coach boys as well as girls. Corvo sees the upside even more since the birth of his daughter Taylor, who turned 1 on July 16.
“Tomek’s breaking barriers,” Corvo said. “Having a daughter of my own, I’m in software technology, so women in tech is top of mind for me now.
“It’s not like it wasn’t before, but now I have a different lens to look at things. With Tomek being that trailblazer that she was and continues to be right now, if I could ever get my daughter to spend time with her and continue building that relationship out, it would be invaluable.”
Tomek resigned as head coach in 2003 shortly before her father passed away but later returned as an assistant coach for both boys and girls. In her first year working with Papa, the girls team finished fourth at the state finals, winning the program’s first trophy.
Midfielder Abby Swanson, who starred on that team and is now an All-American at Loyola, said Tomek’s influence was immense.
“You couldn’t even dream of a better role model to have at practice every day as a coach and even as a teacher,” Swanson said. “You’re watching someone who isn’t afraid to play with the boys and is better than the boys.
“We talk about women in sports and kind of finding our own way and not being in the shadows, and she’s been doing that before that was as big as it is now. It definitely carried over into training and in the classroom. It was always just push hard, work hard, be competitive.”
Tomek stressed to her players that while winning is the goal, it isn’t the most important piece.
“At the time I was 16, we’re still learning how to use our voices,” Swanson said. “But she was someone who totally empowered you to go forward, whatever way that was, and it was just so cool. She always had our back.”
Tomek has never trumpeted her accomplishments. Swanson said the players learned about Tomek’s past in bits and pieces, mostly from other coaches. That humility was another value Tomek passed down to her students.
“For a long time, I didn’t like having the attention on me, but I came to realize the value in sharing my story because I want to be a humble person and just do my job,” Tomek said. “When these stories would come up and I saw the responses of my students or soccer players both on the boys side and girls side, I realized my story is one to share because it is important to know the history and people looked up to me.
“That was uncomfortable for many years, but I accepted that role and I made a promise to myself that I would always be humble and yet honest and be the best role model that I can be and a positive influence on others.
Tomek is going to take some much-deserved time off but said she hasn’t ruled out a return to coaching in some capacity in the future. Corvo doubts she can stay away from the game for long, but she’s left a strong foundation at North.
“That’s one of the things I tell the boys all the time – what Tomek built and what Mike continues to build in our program is second to none,” Corvo said. “It is first class. They really provide that environment for the kids to succeed and play a high level of soccer.