Jennifer Gardner became the first woman in Wyoming history to serve as head coach of a high school football team after Big Horn County School District No. 2 selected her Monday to run Lovell High School's program.
Gardner's promotion comes after she served three seasons as an assistant coach, specializing in the offensive and defensive lines.
"I've always loved football. I've always loved teaching," Gardner told the Casper Star-Tribune Wednesday. "I'm looking forward to coaching the boys and having a team of my own."
Gardner's experience as an assistant factored into the decision to promote her to head coach, said Lovell activities director Joe Koritnik.
"She established herself as a very good lines coach," he said. "She had developed a positive rapport with our players, specifically with the linemen, so we felt good about how she makes connections with kids."
The head coaching position became available when former coach Doug Hazen stepped down in November to spend more time with his family. Hazen is principal and special education director at Lovell Middle School.
Lovell went 62-26 during Hazen's nine seasons. The Bulldogs most recently won the 2011 state championship, their third in Hazen's tenure.
Assistant coach Bob Weber resigned at the same time as Hazen, leaving Gardner and two other assistants.
Koritnik said the search for a new football coach became difficult. The majority of applicants were not teachers and the school district had a shortage of teaching positions available. That limited the interviewing process to only three candidates. Gardner is a math teacher at Lovell High School.
"You interview someone and they talk about relationships they've made with kids and she's done very good with that," Koritnik said. "She has strength as a teacher and as a coach. We felt that she was solid in those areas."
All three remaining candidates were interviewed by a committee consisting of Koritnik, principal Scott O'Tremba, boys basketball coach Craig Lundberg and three members of the school board. They concluded interviews in the final week of April and presented the results at Monday's school board meeting.
"She's pretty dynamic and she has very good leadership qualities that will benefit her in this role," Koritnik said.
Lovell was the third-leading rushing team in Class 2A last year, averaging 208.8 yards per game. The Bulldogs allowed just 167.2 rushing yards per game. They also had three all-state selections, including one who will return in the fall for his senior season.
The next step for Gardner and the administration is filling out her assistant coaching staff. With her promotion and Weber resigning in November, there are two open assistant coaching jobs.
Koritnik said Lovell will lose a lot of experience to graduation and this fall's team will "really have to step up from where they are now." He did say there is great promise for the Bulldogs in the freshman and sophomore classes.
"We made the choice and now it's just a matter of surrounding coach Gardner with some good assistant coaches and see where the program goes," Koritnik said. "I'm excited for Jeny. She's very passionate about the game of football."