Willi's Way: Jean Willi's legacy goes beyond wins at Bridgewater

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BRIDGEWATER, Va. (WHSV) -- Bridgewater's commencement is set for Saturday. And as college careers come to an end, so will the administrative duties of Jean Willi.

The former Eagles' women's basketball coach announced her retirement in February after a career that spans four decades - dating back to her time as a player.

But her legacy will last even longer.

Her career is one that can easily be measured in numbers. In 21 seasons at the helm, Willi was on the sidelines for 566 games, 375 of them ending in victories.

"I really don't think about it. I'll be honest," Willi said. "It's like, 'OK, 21, OK.' It just kind of all runs together and I guess that's a good thing. You enjoyed it enough that it never felt like you were really in a job."

Stepping into the head coaching role in 1996, Willi found success early in her tenure. Quickly, 20-win seasons, ODAC crowns and trips to the NCAA tournament became a standard.

"Obviously, as a young coach and to have that kind of success early, it was like 'Uh-oh, where do we go from here?' I wasn't sure that was the best way to start thinking back on it but I think it set a precedent for what we wanted to do," Willi said.

"And what we've tried to do was just always put down a good product on the floor and with good people doing that. And I've just had some tremendous, tremendous talent come through that has made it all possible."

A five-time ODAC Coach of the Year, Willi produced some of the best athletes in the conference. And often, they were homegrown in the Valley.

"It's always been Jean Willi, Bridgewater women's basketball. I've never known anything else, she's been here almost as long as I've been alive," former Eagles guard Cassidy Burkholder said.

Burkholder was a first-team all-ODAC selection following her senior season and was finalist for the Josten's Trophy, which honors the top Division III basketball player in the country.

"(Willi's) commitment to us as individuals then leading to our development as a team it was very beneficial. Not only for me," Burkholder said.

"We were honest with each other, we didn't hide anything, she told me what it was that I needed to work on and I took her advice and I worked on it."

Willi admits that sometimes basketball players in the Valley get overlooked by bigger programs, enabling her to recruit homegrown talent.

"But I think also it's a credit to the work ethic of kids in our area," Willi said. "I mean we have good hardworking kids and they know what it means to work hard at the end of the day, they are going to be the kids who are going to get you championships."

Perhaps no head coach knew Willi better than her Poultry Road rival at EMU, Kevin Griffin.

"If you want to be the best, then you got to beat the best and when I got here, she was one of the best and their program was terrific, so that was sort of the measuring bar," Griffin said.

After taking over at Eastern Mennonite in 2004, it took him four seasons to finally beat Willi. Now, the head-to-head record stands even at 13 wins each.

"When we played them, we knew outside of the rivalry and outside of who was supposed to be good at the time, it was going to be a war," Griffin said. "And so our kids knew that and understood that and a lot of that had to do with her and her influence."

Reflecting back on her time against Bridgewater's rival, Willi recalls how special those games were.

"There's certain games that you know you don't have to pump the kids up for. And that's one of them," Willi said. "And Kevin, outstanding program, he obviously is a tremendous coach and it was always kind of nice trying to match wits with them and just the bragging rights."

No matter the schools' records, the EMU-Bridgewater games were always competitive.

"A lot of our games were back and forth and they got us pretty good early on and then we had some games where we got them pretty good," Griffin said.

"But honestly over the course of the 12 years, it wasn't like there was a bunch of blowouts, they were always regardless of talent level good games."

Pep talks are part of Willi's past now. Her future plans are a bit simpler.

"I enjoy golf. I'm probably going to get my golf clubs back out," Willi said. "I'm just looking to kind of waking up every day and like, 'OK, let's see what today brings.'"

But her longevity on the sidelines has built a foundation her successor can build upon.

"It's going to take a lot of getting used to, not just me but everybody here in the community and at Bridgewater to get used to a new face," Burkholder said.

The school hired Sarah Gaffney in April to take over the program.

"I don't doubt that they're going to have a great season next year under her control," Burkholder said. "But she's got some big shoes to fill and I think Coach Willi, her name will be around for quite some time."

Griffin added: "I think in that program from the people that know her and the people that worked with her they will say, she not only did her job but she did it well and she had an impact that was beyond just the wins and losses on a basketball court. And I think that's really important to her."

Willi hopes she created a real family within Bridgewater basketball.

"I can't think of anywhere else I would've rather started and/or finish my career."