Chicago North Shore is making a competitive push this summer 7s season, combining resources with Chicago and hiring former USA and Canada women’s national team staffer John Coumbe-Lilley. Last Saturday, the team won the Forest City 7s, the first Midwest series qualifier, and intends to build upon those successes all the way through nationals.
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Chicago North Shore joined the Women’s Premier League in 2017 and focused its attention on that elite competition. Now the club has some bandwidth to really pursue success in the 7s sphere, and the search for a coach fortuitously aligned with Coumbe-Lilley’s desire to return to the game. After 25 years playing and coaching rugby internationally – a career that includes a post as supplemental backs coach and sports psychologist for the USA Women’s National Team – Coumbe-Lilley took a much needed break after the 2014 Women’s Rugby World Cup.
“It’d be great to get involved with a local club with some ambition, with athletes that just enjoy striving for something positive in a warm environment,” a rejuvenated Coumbe-Lilley started thinking last fall.
Dawn McKenzie reached out with the open position and once talks began, it became clear that “opportunity and motivation met at the same time,” Coumbe-Lilley considered the good timing. North Shore relayed its vision – one that included quality space for developing and nationals-vying athletes – and it was a good fit. The hiring process was smooth, practices began in the third week of May, and the numbers came together nicely.
The club fields Green (first) and Gold (second) sides to accommodate the different skill levels and aspirations of members, and put everything in motion for a first runout at the social Shipwreck 7s. Green won the tournament, Gold finished third, and did so relatively easily. That was not the case for last weekend’s Forest City 7s, the first of three Midwest 7s series tournaments in advance of the July 20 regional championship. North Shore Green led the Chicago Lions 19-14 at the end of regulation and then the Lions rallied for a final converted try for the 21-19 win.
“That happens in rugby,” Coumbe-Lilley summed up a skilled, well coached Lions team that took advantage of North Shore mistakes. “But we took many positives from that game. More important was what happened against Legacy. They tested us in a different way than the Lions did, and we were more fortunate against Legacy because we didn’t necessarily implement what we had practiced in a way we wanted to. … That game was the making of us.”
The teams tied 17-17, making the third pool play game against Cincinnati the decision-maker for the semifinals. The team responded appropriately for a shutout win and trip to the semifinals, where Metropolis awaited. Both teams, Green and Gold, continued to analyze their opponents, identifying strengths and forming a plan to focus effort elsewhere. The key then became execution, and the team met that challenge with another shutout win.
“There were a couple moments that were just breathtaking – for any level of rugby,” Coumbe-Lilley commended the players’ execution. “All through training the one thing we stress is partnerships between players in the team.
“We were leading 31-0 with about 30 seconds left and Metro had a lovely break,” the coach was compelled to single out one player. “Maybe a different player on a different team makes a different decision and lets that player score, but Esther Anderson chased the player down for 50 yards. Ran it down, tackled her on the try line and turned over possession. You’ve got to respect that effort. It puts a marker down for everybody of what expectations should be.”
The Green team had some nice momentum heading into the final against the Chicago Lions. Coumbe-Lilley noted some excitement for the rematch, but the coach was less interested in redemption.
“The purpose of me being hired was helping them play good rugby, help them get in position for a national championship from the Midwest up. That was my task,” the coach said. “Our opponent is secondary, doesn’t influence what we’re trying to do.
North Shore entered the final with the proper respect for its opponent, but in continuation of an ever-improving day, made different decisions in comparison with the teams’ opener. A nice quality of play resulted and North Shore won 19-5.
“Some things I’m learning about them as individuals – they’re very dedicated, smart people,” Coumbe-Lilley said. “They love playing rugby well and doing things well. They have their own high standards and it’s very easy to work with them and coach them because they want good things to happen for them and their teammates.”
Seeing both teams in action and against tough competition, Coumbe-Lilley grew in appreciation of his new team. Performance wise, he praised Ellen Chirikos, captain of the Gold team, as the epitome of leadership and composure under pressure.
“Erin Levy from Chicago is having a fantastic start to the season,” the coach continued. “She sets the tone in terms of quality of execution. Implements very well, makes few errors and is tremendous support to teammates. She’s been a highlight and has scored quite a few tries so far.
“Nicole Fisch has been a highlight, too, and really rose to the occasion in the final,” Coumbe-Lilley added. “The defensive work – leadership and intensity off the defensive line – and the simplicity of her rugby are very impressive. She doesn’t overcomplicate things, which is good for us.”
The coach again praised Anderson, whose work rate is also a standard setter.
“Some players have an engine and intensity about them and her choice to work as hard as she does, and the way she goes about it, creates opportunities for the team in special ways,” Coumbe-Lilley said. “She has a great attitude and takes pride in her play.”
The coach explained that everybody, Green and Gold, had bright spots on the day. Prop Amy Martello displayed great positional play and decision-making skills. Kat Stanley, a smart and entertaining playmaker, injects creativity and joy onto the pitch and teammates feed off it.
“First off, they’re fantastic people. That’s one thing I like very much,” Coumbe-Lilley talked take-aways after the first competitive tournament. “Instead of sulking and being upset about things, they were still there trying to learn all the way through the process and adapting.
“They have a sense of humor. They work hard. And they’re good with each other and me. I like being involved in this environment very much,” the coach continued. “I learned that I made a really great choice and hope they feel the same way. … Their commitment makes me more committed.”
It’s still early in the club 7s season and in addition to the series tournaments, North Shore is also competing at the Lakefront 7s in Milwaukee. The schedule is lighter than the coach would have liked due to 15s commitments (senior and U24 Thunderbirds, WPL All-Stars and the USA Super Series) occurring between the Midwest 7s championship and nationals.
“We’ll keep developing our game and expressing ourselves and playing rugby we enjoy,” Coumbe-Lilley closed. “Now we have set the standard and know we can be competitive. We have to be able to do that consistently against our competitors this season. The next step is: Can we be consistent in next five matches?”