By Cody Mello-Klein | [email protected]
Fresh starts and new beginnings define this season for the T.C. Williams varsity girls’ basketball team. Many people are wondering how major changes in the coaching staff and roster will impact the Titans’ record of success, but new Athletic Director James Parker and new Head Coach Lisa Willis are keen on defining their own path forward.
Former Head Coach Kesha Walton’s legacy looms large at T.C. Williams. Walton, who is now girls’ varsity coach at crosstown Bishop Ireton High School, led the Titans to a string of successful seasons. Walton’s track record includes five district titles and two state tournament appearances, along with several top 20 rankings in the D.C. metro area.
During the 2017-18 season, Walton and the Titans proved yet again why they were a force to be reckoned with. The team finished the season 23-6, but Parker is focused on the last game the team lost: the state championship.
“From one year to the next it’s really just about maintaining the success this program has had over the last five to eight years and taking it to another level,” Parker said. “At the end of the day [the team] still hadn’t won a state championship over that time period.”
Parker and Coach Willis are coming into the program with a high bar set for themselves and the team. They’re ready to start over and find their own way to the state championship.
“Honestly, I don’t feel like I’m stepping into anybody else’s shoes,” Willis said. “Everything is new, so this is a great opportunity to walk in my own shoes and see how far I can get with that.”
For Parker, the path to the state championship starts and ends with Willis, who is no stranger to success herself.
A Team USA gold medalist in the 2005 World University Games and former professional player for the New York Liberty, Los Angeles Sparks and Sacramento Monarchs, Willis brings more than 20 years of experience at multiple levels of basketball to the Titans. While that experience played a role in Parker’s decision to hire her, Willis’ skills off the court really caught the attention of the new athletics director.
“We kind of get the best of both worlds with her,” Parker said. “She does a lot of stuff off the court too as far as training programs and leadership seminars.”
Willis recently went to 30 classrooms in 30 days to teach students about leadership and goal setting. She even schedules leadership seminars and weekly personal assessments with her players to monitor their growth on and off the court. Willis brings a supportive approach to coaching, one that Parker, the players and even parents have already bought into.
“Seeing growth week to week, that’s a W in my book. That’s what I’m here for and when we win games that’s just the cherry on top,” Willis said. “I’m trying to create leaders. While I’m here to win games, I took this job so I could help these girls win in their own lives.”
That philosophy manifests on the court too. Unlike in previous years, there are no set team captains. Instead two different players will step on the court as captains every week. For players who are new to the team or playing at the JV level, it’s an opportunity to learn leadership skills first hand.
“She’s very big on taking leadership roles and I want to be a leader as well even though I’m going to be on the lower class,” Amor Harris, a point guard for the JV team, said. “When I go to varsity, or if I do, I want to try to have a voice with the team and give ideas.”
Only four of the 12 players on the Titans’ roster are returning to the team. The rest are JV players who made the move up to varsity or are first time T.C. Williams players. While all that change might seem like it could disrupt the team, senior point guard Trinity Palacio, who has played on the varsity team for four years, thinks the transition has been smooth.
“I think we’ve always been a fast-paced team,” Palacio said. “We’re all adjusting to that and being able to push the ball ahead and see where people want the ball, where they could be best at. We’re getting better at that.”
The team currently sits at 3-1 after a tough 71-55 loss to New Haven Academy. While the team’s three consecutive wins were a great boost to morale, Willis is keenly aware that with fresh faces both on and off the court, this new Titans team will need time to grow, evolve and learn how to work together.
“We still have a lot of work to do,” Willis said. “We’re now getting past the point of building a rapport with one another. Late January, early February is when I expect us to be at our best.”
Willis and Parker understand the value of patience when building a team. While the success of past T.C. Williams teams looms large behind them, Parker and Willis know that, for them, it’s time to move forward and establish a legacy of their own.
“There’s a lot of rich history and tradition here, but a lot of that history and tradition hasn’t been recent,” Parker said. “We want to bring that back. We want the kids who are in the school now to know what it feels like to win, know what it feels like to be on top.”