Off-season training is necessary and vital for every athlete. This past summer, junior midfielder Brooke Ksiazek and redshirt sophomore goalkeeper Vanessa Niestrom took their training to another level, joining the Chicago Red Stars Reserves team.

The results from their experience with the Red Stars go beyond the tenacious abilities developed on the soccer field. This off-season allowed Ksiazek and Niestrom to progress as teammates and flourish as best friends.

A member of the Women’s Premier Soccer League, the Chicago Red Stars Reserves squad consists of top all-around players from universities across the country.

“It’s like a college all-star team,” head coach Eric Golz said. “There really isn’t a higher level of summer training. The Red Stars Reserves team is basically the cream of the crop.”

Early in the spring 2015 semester, Ksiazek received an email from the Red Stars about its interest in her joining the team. At first glance, the Naperville native was on the fence about making the commitment.

“I read over all the details and fine print,” Ksiazek said. “I knew it was going to be a huge commitment. I was toying back and forth on doing it or not.”

Also debating her route for the summer, Niestrom was still unsure what her plans were. Ksiazek informed Niestrom of the news and put her in contact with Red Stars Reserves assistant and goalkeeper coach, Bonnie Young.

“I thought it was an incredible opportunity for Brooke,” Niestrom said. “She was excited and put me in touch with the coaches. It seemed like a great opportunity for both of us. I knew I wanted to get some games in since it’s my first season starting. In the end it all worked out.”

Coincidentally, Young was looking to add a goalkeeper to the team as well. Red Stars Reserves head coach Chris King also thought adding Niestrom would be beneficial. Seeking to join a high-level training program for the summer, Young and Niestrom’s needs went hand in hand.

Playing in a handful of games for the Red Stars, the duo’s skills evolved to another level. Ksiazek believes their training this summer was one of the most valuable of their careers.

“It was a great experience,” Ksiazek said. “I know it’s really great to be back at school working out with the strength and conditioning coaches so you definitively get fit, but it’s not exactly soccer game-ready fit. Being able to keep my touch on the ball nearly every day in the summer kept me in top shape. We played with some of the best players in the country so there was definitely no drop off in competition.”

The Red Stars finished their season undefeated, topping SoCal FC, 2-1 in the WPSL National Championship.

“It’s incredible because we went undefeated,” Niestrom said. “Through these games we’ve played, we learned so much. At the end of the day it’s about learning.”

The pair, who are also roommates in Uptown, arrived back in Normal late July, eager to lead the rest of the team in its final stretch of summer training.

“I think we’ve brought that mindset back here to ISU for our team. We told the girls we need to take what we’ve learned and to keep applying it. Yeah, the results matter, but at the end of the day the most important thing is what you take out of it.”

What Ksiazek and Niestrom took out of this summer wasn’t just an added skill set, but also an unbreakable bond.

As a product of her experiences, Niestrom will need to carry what she’s learned over the summer and apply it quickly with a long road ahead of her. She has big shoes to fill following the departure of Aryn Newsom. Newsom holds the program record for most wins and was considered an anchor of the team. Niestrom is excited for the opportunity ahead of her. She credits her off-season with the Red Stars as a big contribution to her development as a leader.

“Going into games, I’m so excited to play now,” Niestrom said. “Decisions and tactics, I’m still getting used to but I’m eager to be that rock for this team.”

An All-MVC Second Team selection, Ksiazek puts firm trust in her fellow goalkeeper and best friend.

“She’s one of the hardest working girls I know,” Ksiazek said. “In drills, practices and now games, she’s always giving it her all. It’s her time to shine and we’re ready to take this season head on.”

With a young team, Golz will look to Ksiazek and Niestrom to hold down the fort early on and throughout the season.

“Where you come in after the summer determines essentially how we take off and how we do, it’s vital,” Golz said. “Playing with the Red Stars, it’s a high level of training and competition. Brooke and Vanessa took the best route. There’s no better way to have prepared them for the season. ”

What Ksiazek and Niestrom gained with the Red Stars will be key to the season. The up and coming leaders will look to be a force as ISU competes for its fifth consecutive MVC Championship.

Beginning the season 2-5-1 isn’t the best way to start off but Niestrom understands the road to success includes failure and learning.

“Being part of the Red Stars helped me develop not just as a player but also as a person. Going into this season I know things will be different, but what I also know is that we’re extremely comfortable with each other. We criticize and help each other, which in the end makes us better on and off the field. It’s beyond beneficial to lean on each other to help lead the team.”

Niestrom appreciates everything her and Ksiazek have gone through together and is ready for whatever the future may bring.

“This summer allowed me step out of my comfort zone. I developed as a leader and I’m happy I did it with my best friend.”

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