New RPS athletic director Dawn Williamson plans upgrades

ROCKFORD — Dawn Williamson is entering Jefferson High School. The walls of the large open space outside the gymnasium, known as the Triangle, are lined with glass trophy cases. Banners also hang on the walls, each depicting a senior playing one of Jefferson’s 24 sports.

The J-Hawk badge is everywhere. Coated outside the school. The exterior of the gymnasium. Inside the Triangle.

But the J-Hawks were bottom of the NIC-10 All-Sports Trophy standings last year. And the year before. And the year before. Guilford moved up to third, but Auburn finished sixth and East tied for eighth.

For more than a decade now, three of Rockford’s four public schools have generally finished in the bottom half of the all-sports rankings.

How does Williamson plan to change that? She replaced Mat Parker as the new general sporting director of RPS. She knows the area well, having lived in Rockford for 15 years while working for Beloit College in a variety of roles: Women’s Volleyball Coach, Assistant Athletics Coach, Recruitment Coordinator, Associate Director of Admissions, Assistant Director of Athletics and, more recently, Director of Recreation and Activities.

She’s a former star herself, both in the classroom and on the sports field, having been named to the All-Big Ten Academic Conference as a Wisconsin volleyball player. She was also an assistant volleyball coach at Princeton. She comes across as pleasant, hopeful and positive – but also down-to-earth. Here are nine questions with the new head of RPS athletics:

Sports banners are displayed inside the Jefferson High School Triangle Thursday, August 4, 2022 in Rockford.

After:Mat Parker exited as Rockford Public Schools athletic director: ‘It’s not my choice’

You are a black woman in a role usually held by white men. You are a former Big Ten athlete. You’ve won conference titles as a head coach. How does this affect your point of view?

“Playing in the Big Ten is a different experience than playing D III. Coaching at different levels certainly informs the way I see the world. Being a PE teacher, all of that. Being a woman definitely does. And playing a sport smaller, not basketball or football, is going to inform the way I see athletics. And being a black woman is definitely going to do that. Everything.”

You also ran cross country and track and field in high school in Lansing, Michigan. Do you think too many athletes today specialize in one sport?

“I’m old; I graduated in 1993, so that was before specialization. Back when I was playing, that’s exactly what people were doing, you did three seasons in sports. Coaches wanted you to do it, because they wanted you to stay in shape all year round.

“All I know is there’s a push to push them younger and younger, but I think middle school and primary is not a time to specialize. It’s still time to figure out what you’re good at. You might be good at something you don’t even know you’re good at just because you haven’t been exposed. This is the time, even if you’re good at basketball, why don’t try baseball? High school makes sense to me. I’m not against majoring, but too early is hard.

What is the best way to improve sports programs at Auburn, Jefferson, Guilford and East?

“The big start is making sure that all of these college teams are full and doing a great job there. And I hope – and all we can do is hope – that translates, they have this great experience in middle school and they want to continue doing that when they get to high school. That’s the focus right now. For all the teams. We don’t want volleyball and basketball to be sold out. We want complete soccer and tennis so they’ll be ready to roll when they enter high school.

How, exactly, do you improve college programs?

“Our plan – and I always preface this by saying everyone always thinks their idea is going to work – my idea is to offer more support. Our athletic directors in colleges are not full time like in high schools, they teach and do other things. So if our office can offset some of the work that’s been put on the ADs so they can be in the hallways asking, ‘Have you thought about football’, all of this, making sure we have good coaches and people to work at the door and booth of the concessions, they can do all of that and we can do some of the administrative and background stuff and take it off their plates. It is hope. We’ll let you know if it works. But in my head, it works. That’s the plan.”

After:5 Reasons Rockford Public Schools Dominate Summer League Basketball

Numbers are a problem for RPS schools in several sports. For example, the four RPS schools cooperate to form a girls’ golf team. How to solve this problem ?

“The first thing I did was go around the schools and talk to all the ADs. My next trick is to talk to all the coaches. What do you think? They all thought about it, because it’s their sport and they love it, so they thought about how it stays alive. Talking to them is the first step. If you were me, what would you do? I’m sure they have ideas.

“I will listen to anything. That doesn’t mean I will, but I will definitely listen to it. My focus is once again to develop the college and make sure their teams are complete. I don’t know what chance we’ll have of filling high school teams if college teams aren’t full. If they decide not to play when they get to high school, that’s fine. But then it’s at least a decision. If they haven’t, it’s not even a decision, they just don’t do it.

“I also want to partner with some of these sports organizations there. Our children are already going out with some of these clubs. Is there a way to work with them? Please train our people, but also ask that they come back and play on our prom teams.

The trophies are displayed in the Jefferson High School Triangle on Thursday, August 4, 2022 in Rockford.

Guilford, Auburn and East have all built gleaming new clubhouses in recent years, and Jefferson has renovated its gym. Does it attract athletes?

“People don’t come looking for facilities. They come out because you asked them to. Or they go out because their friends do. Or they come out because you believed in them. Facilities are great – love this gym. It’s a really great space, but that’s not what people come for. They come because someone is interested in them. Even though they said, try it for a few days and see what you think.

Recent NBA All-Star success Fred VanVleet, an Auburn graduate, and Vederian Lowe, another Auburn grad who signed with the Minnesota Vikings for $198,000 as an undrafted offensive lineman, promote RPS athletics?

“It can’t hurt. It’s a great thing. But I would still look into it, that’s not why you have to play sports. It’s great if you use it to go to college. It’s great if you’re great enough at your sport to be able to play professionally at any level. But what you get from sports – strong academics, being in shape, understanding how to collaborate with other people, everything employers will be looking for later in life – are things you learn through athletics. It’s great to have someone from that area who has done it, but there are different ways to do it. I would hate if that was the only way we called it success. Most of us who are good at sports haven’t had the chance to do it, but we have all that other stuff. We are better parents, better spouses, better colleagues because of it.

What do children get out of sport?

“Whenever I have the opportunity to talk about sports, I talk about the benefits of playing a sport. Whenever I have the opportunity to talk to parents, directors, teachers, everyone will hear the benefits sports. I don’t want people wondering why we’re doing this. Let me tell you. That’s why schools across the country are investing in athletics, because it’s going to give them those qualities that they’re going to take away with them the rest of their lives.

“Some lessons are best learned when you succeed, but the lessons are still there even if you don’t. People who play sports, in general, are going to get better grades, they’re going to do more other things at school, they’re going to be healthier, there’s lists and lists of things. Even the social/emotional learning that people are talking about now, that’s all huge in athletics. Everything that happens in our gyms class happens in our fields, our courts and our swimming pools.

How difficult will it be to make RPS sports teams more successful?

“It will definitely be a challenge to move the needle. But I like challenges. So do all the people here. It’s the athletic mentality. Everyone in the district, and not just in the athletic departments, is asking, “How can we make this even more awesome?” Even if we were the best in the state, we would still like to improve. Everyone is inside. They try to do their best. »

About Rachel Gooch

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