Lisa Gartner: Head Coach
Lisa Gartner has been involved in rugby for over three decades. She began playing in the pioneering days of the women's game in 1975, and continued on to win national championships as both a player and a coach. She's also the author of the "Rookie Primer," a training tool that's been distributed worldwide.
The reason for her longevity, Lisa says, is simple: "I love it. I love everything about it."
In the beginning, women's rugby was "fairly primitive - a handful of teams, all kind of randomly organized," Lisa says. "I started playing with the University of Illinois Motherruggers and eventually became captain, selector, match secretary, sometimes coach and everything else - a common situation back then."
She joined the Chicago Women's club as a player in 1979. She also played for the Midwest Select Side most years until 1988. The Chicago team, who initiated the first national tournament and hosted many times, also competed at nationals each year Lisa was there.
In 1988, she moved to Boston and joined Beantown RFC, where one of her coaches was Kevin O'Brien, who coached the U.S. women to their sole World Cup Championship. She was exposed to a wealth of new knowledge and played on the very first "Pink Dress" team at Cape Cod Sevens. Lisa finally won her first national championship in 1991 and promptly retired from competitive playing. "I was limping through the final game and could no longer bend at the waist, but I made it to the last whistle. I could hear my younger rivals breathing down my neck, literally, so I figured it was a good time to go."
Lisa also started her coaching career with Radcliffe RFC team upon her move to Boston, becoming more fully involved after her retirement as a player. "I was lucky to work with two other amazing coaches, Bubba Connors and Mary Dixey, and learned a lot about working with diverse personalities and getting the best from everyone." Her team won several collegiate tournaments during this time, and placed fourth in the national championships in 1996, second in 1997 and finally first in 1998, beating perennial champions, Penn State, in an intense final match.
"Winning a national championship is a truly special experience - and very elusive, as all coaches know. It was a long process, where the players slowly became believers in themselves," Lisa says. "For years, we'd been decent, but we had always let the toughest games get away from us. In the finals of the1995 Beantown Tournament, however, the team just kept pushing. Our kicker put us ahead from an impossible angle in injury time and instead of weeping and wailing at the end of the game, there was weeping and whooping. The collective self-image of the team changed that day. They understood something new about winning. We went to nationals for first time in1996 and realized that we belonged there. In 1997, we put up a good fight in the finals and in 1998, we had the experience, the talent and, yes, the luck, to win it all."
The next year, Lisa retired as Radcliffe's head coach in order to go back to school and eventually earned a master's degree in education. She continued to work with Beantown as an assistant and fitness coach but attempted to leave rugby for good when she returned to Chicago in 2005. That self-imposed retirement lasted exactly one year. "I tried to escape it," Lisa says, "but all it took was one phone call and I said 'okay, I'll come to one practice.' Then I said 'once a week...' Rugby people know how this goes."
"Chicago Women's Rugby is a great club. They didn't have a coach for a while, which made it difficult to put together a cohesive team." In the past two years Chicago's skills, fitness and understanding of the game have improved dramatically. "They have a lot of talent, team spirit and continue to build towards a higher level of play."
This fall season more than half the starting team moved, went back to school or suffered significant injury. "We had to take a couple of steps back, but at the same time, recruited 15 new players and now field a "B" side." The emphasis on recruiting will continue. "We have a lot to offer young players from those with select side ambitions to those who want to meet a great group of friends."
"Sue [Whitwell] and I have developed a true partnership over the past four seasons. She is a great game analyst and strategist. I focus on the emotional side of playing and how to fit all the parts together. Sue is a tight five specialist and innovator. I believe that precise basic skills and fitness are key building blocks to any game plan." Lisa is also a back row specialist. The club is currently interviewing back coaches and plan to have one in place for the spring 2009 season.