Russell's Reflections: A Look Back on Our Sevens Season with JC-L

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

I was interviewed for the sevens coach position by Lauren Trout, Nicole Fisch and Dawn Mackenzie in mid-April at the Celtic Crown.  They had my rugby resume and cover letter, but we did not even discuss either of them in any depth. Lauren and Dawn knew me a little bit.  I had coached North Shore a little bit in a fall and spring session five years ago, but not enough to earn any credit for the play of the team that season.  The conversation was about the vision for the sevens season and for the club in general.


It was an extra special meeting because North Shore and Chicago Women were pairing up to field what became the Green and Gold.  I sensed there was a different and inclusive vision for the season, which excited me. I wanted to return to coaching after a layoff to recharge my batteries, so I was motivated to coach an ambitious club, with good people, a positive vision for the play between the lines, and community outside the lines.  I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to be the North Shore Sevens coach, and what a season we had. 

Initially it was a bit raggedy as the players and I learned about each other.  We sorted out training to establish principles and expectations of play in May.  We trained so hard in twilight until we moved to Speer Academy’s excellent facility brightening our preparation literally and figuratively.  We often had 18-28 players attending training, their effort was terrific, they learned so well and adapted to new demands like seasoned players can. 

Our first run out was at Shipwreck Sevens to get to know ourselves a bit.  We needed light competition because we were raw, so many things were untested, and we had not been in competition together.  We fielded Green and Gold teams, we saw bright spots in play and attitudes then that proved out the whole season. We had a little too much for our opponents that day and came out on top of the tournament.  We finished 1st and 3rd that day, and some patterns of play were established that would help us the following week. 


Our second tournament was our first Midwest qualifier in Rockford.  It was a well-organized tournament with our first real tests for Green and Gold teams.  We played the Lions first, got out to a lead but they pipped us by two points to win the game.  We set a marker for ourselves and bounced back with a hard fought tie against Legacy from Michigan.  We had to win handsomely in our final group game, which we did, and then we grew in confidence to smash our way into the final where we overcame the Chicago Lions in a tight game to win our first qualifier.  We were feeling good, we were healthy, our Chicago Women –Northshore connections all over the field were promising and bright. We knew we were doing well because the Gold team was causing other teams problems, and they were always pushing in training for harder work and better play.  The group mentality and commitment in training was a feature of the season. It was so good so often. 


Our third tournament and second Midwest qualifier was the Firehouse Sevens at Lemont. We found ourselves in an early groove as the first seed, it became typical of us to score many points, concede few and really enjoy our rugby.  We showed in the previous tournaments we scored and played team sevens. This tournament we started to show consistently that 4-5 players would be involved in scoring tries, the relationships on and off the field made our rugby fun to play.  Even when things were not always going our way, both teams kept their chins up and kept going and played good rugby. Green topped the Chicago Lions in a hard fought final, and suddenly our challenge for the Midwest top seed seemed like no accident.  We took a lot of confidence from the quality and style of play. So many players scored tries; it was great to have so many players get on the score sheet.  


We finished June by winning the Lakesfront Sevens as repeat champions in dramatic last second action scoring a try under the posts.  Gold secured third placed in the open section. Green and Gold played each other in the semi-finals, it was like an arm wrestle to the death with both teams playing at their limits.  The game showed how far Gold came in the six weeks of training, Green displayed a bit of extra quality to win the game. It was the best game of the tournament. June was a special month; it is not often at any level of rugby a new team concept that never existed before, with a new coach, new players, two clubs combining new vision and new ideas have sustained success like we did.  


We definitely knew things were special and different and were grateful for the good experiences.  We were not over confident because we knew the Chicago Lions and Legacy were capable of stopping us, so on one hand we were pleased, but on the other hand, we had respect for our opponents.  There was a two-week break between tournaments. The players had worked so hard, trained well and given their all.  


Vacations, work commitments and injuries meant the fifth tournament and third Midwest series qualifying games were played in a different way.  The Green team had a fifteen game winning streak going into event as first seeds but lost to Legacy, bouncing back to qualify for the semifinals but begin beaten by the Chicago Lions, but rebounding again to take third place.  Gold muscled their way to score more points in this qualifier than earlier events. There were bright spots despite the difficulties the teams faced and we moved on.  


We fielded one team in the Midwest championships.  The opening four games were as polished and as dominant as we played all year.  We did not concede a try in the first four games and scored over a hundred points.  It was a feature of the season that we scored over one hundred points in every tournament we played.  We felt confident we could contest the final against the Chicago Lions but we were not able to convert the opportunities we created, and so we earned second place this year.  


Last year we finished third in our region, this year we finished second.  We improved. The bigger picture to this season was the way two clubs came together, the adaptability and hard work the players put into playing well, and the quality and fun of the relationships on and off the field.  We had a great season, yes, we were disappointed about not progressing out of our region, but we played some breathtaking rugby, we had so many positive moments and many successful moments.  


Sitting in the Celtic Crown in April, we could not have known how things would develop.  I am very proud of what we did, how we did it and the way we tried every day to be a little better.  We conducted a review of the season, we know where we can improve, and based on the player communications I received so far, some players are ready to start preparing for next summer’s program.  Moving forward we need help from alumni and supporters to find solutions and form strategies to create an even better program in 2020!


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