By BETSY TAYLOR
It is said when God closes a door, he opens a window. In Sr. Lisa Maurer's case, he provided access to a football field.
When Maurer felt called to religious life, she made peace with moving away from her hometown and never marrying, she said. A bigger mental hurdle was that she'd no longer be coaching sports, which the former junior high school teacher loved to do.
Sr. Lisa Maurer, OSB, assistant football coach for The College of St. Scholastica, on the Saints sidelines in Duluth, Minn.
"I thought, 'Oh my gosh, if I don't have that, I don't know what I'll be if I don't have that,' but yet you make sacrifices, and you make sacrifices for greater things." Feeling nothing could be greater than the call to religious life, she "happily, happily, happily" entered the St. Scholastica Monastery as a Benedictine postulant in 2007. The monastery grounds in Duluth, Minn., include The College of St. Scholastica, which has a Division III football team.
Today, Sr. Maurer, 45, serves as the director of mission integration for Duluth-based Benedictine Health System.
She's also an assistant coach for the men's football team at The College of St. Scholastica. The team went 10-0 in the last regular season, Sr. Maurer's first, before losing in the first round of the NCAA playoffs.
A female football coach is a rare thing to be. Consider that the Arizona Cardinals made international news in July, when Jen Welter became the NFL's first female assistant coach, working as a training camp intern. The NCAA said it does not keep a statistic related to whether women have coached men's football at the collegiate level. The American Football Coaches Association said Carol White coached kickers at Georgia Tech from 1985-1990. No one interviewed for this story knew of another woman religious ever having coached men's college football.
Prayers and punting
Sr. Maurer coaches football as a volunteer, about two to three hours a day in season. She doesn't recruit players but she will meet with potential team recruits when they're visiting campus, and she works to develop her football coaching skills in the offseason, she said. Her full-time position with Benedictine Health System is her top priority, and she said when she has scheduling conflicts she misses some football practice.
Benedictine Health System is one of the largest Catholic senior care organizations in the nation with more than 40 elder care communities in Minnesota, North Dakota, Wisconsin, Missouri, South Dakota and Illinois. The system includes independent housing, assisted living, skilled nursing, memory care and rehabilitation.
Sr. Maurer, director of mission integration for Benedictine Health System, gives a presentation at Benedictine Senior Living at Steeple Pointe in Osseo, Minn.
Head football coach Kurt Ramler asked Sr. Maurer to join the Saints as its punting and kicking coach after he learned of her enthusiasm for the Saints and her coaching experience.
Sr. Maurer grew up in Sleepy Eye, Minn., playing whatever sports were in season. Her dad was a football coach, and she was on her college softball team. Then, she became a Catholic school teacher in south central Minnesota, where she coached girls volleyball, basketball and softball.
At St. Scholastica, Sr. Maurer would sometimes sit in the football stands, watching the Saints practice while praying the rosary or reading a religious text during her preparation for religious life. She remained a loyal fan once she became a professed religious in 2012. She joined Benedictine Health System that same year as mission integration manager and became mission integration director in 2013.
She was so devoted to the Saints that when Ramler was hired as head coach last year, they met following his first news conference.
"She struck me as a coach when we talked," Ramler said, recalling that she cared first and foremost about the players as individuals. Her knowledge about helping athletes improve their performance and about building teamwork came through, he said.
Playing to strengths
After several conversations about football, coaching and their own lives, Ramler recruited her to the coaching staff. She accepted, after talking with monastery leadership about the offer. Sr. Maurer said Ramler taught her about the mechanics of kicking and punting and put her in touch with kicking coaches across the country. She puts kickers through drills, and works with them one-on-one on mechanics and the mental aspects of the game, like focus and persistence.
Sr. Maurer said, "The skills of coaching translate from sport to sport. You just then have to learn the particular discipline and techniques, strategies of each individual sport." She said she focuses on helping each athlete become the best he can be at the sport, and also on the values needed to be a well-rounded person and good teammate. She added, "And to know what their strengths are, where they fit in best with the team" so the team as a whole also can be the best it can be.
She also writes prayers distri-buted on cards to the coaches and players before football games. Ramler said, "If I don't have my prayer in my pocket during the game, I don't feel right."
Junior Mike Mensing, 22, a Saints quarterback from Ham Lake, Minn., said, "We love having Sr. Lisa as part of our family." He said she's a supportive coach, but like other coaches, "if you mess up, or you're not hustling, she'll definitely get on you." He said he thinks it has meant a lot to the players to have a sister from the monastery so involved with the St. Scholastica team. Having a woman religious coach does mean an accidental sideline curse from a player elicits an "Oh, shoot, sorry, Sister," he said. But on a tense play, she has admitted she was thinking the same thing, he joked.
Ramler plans to expand Sr. Maurer's role to include more coaching related to the team's offensive and defensive systems. "I'm just glad she's coaching. It helps our program. She helps provide a great experience for the kids," he said.
Sr. Maurer puts on her game face during a Sept. 20 game last year against Crown College.
Sr. Maurer travels frequently, visiting Benedictine Health System facilities, where she meets with staff and residents, checking in on how they're doing and what they need. She provides employees with education in group settings about the system's core values of hospitality, stewardship, respect and justice and how they can incorporate those values into their interactions with residents, visitors and other employees.
On both the football field and in a health care setting, Sr. Maurer said, "It's a collection of individuals guided by a common purpose striving toward the same thing. In football, we're striving to win a game, but in our health system, we're striving to live out our mission and to provide compassionate, quality care to the people we're called to serve."
Jill Brown, a nurse and quality management coordinator for Villa St. Vincent, a senior living facility in Crookston, Minn., that provides assisted living, long-term care, short-term care and rehabilitation, said staff look forward to Sr. Maurer's visits. When Sr. Maurer provides education for employees, she'll offer to give a talk a few times to accommodate workers' different shifts. Sometimes, that means she's up and educating before dawn.
"They come in droves to listen to Sr. Lisa," Brown said. Sr. Maurer's site visits tie together the system's values with real-world examples of how staff can bring the facility's Catholic mission to the workplace. Sometimes, caring for an older or sick population can be challenging for employees.
Sr. Maurer's visits provide a reminder of why employees do the work they do at Benedictine Health System, Brown said. "She helps us understand we are doing what God has asked us to do, this meaningful work," Brown said.
Plus, she added, everyone likes to hear about Sr. Maurer's latest game coaching the Saints.
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