Lady Pirate Spotlight: Courtney Willis
Lady Pirate Spotlight: Courtney Willis
In her fourth year as a Lady Pirate, center Courtney Willis has become one of the best women basketball players in school history. local product from Fayetteville, N.C., Willis' career has seen its share of ups and downs since arriving in Greenville four years ago.
As a sophomore at Terry Sanford High School, Willis was a three-sport star athlete in soccer, volleyball, and basketball. But limited opportunities in soccer and volleyball, swayed Willis to a collegiate career on the hardwood floor.
"My first love was soccer," said Willis. "But while in high school I started to grow and by the time my sophomore year was over, I was taller than everyone else in my class. So basketball seemed like a perfect fit for me. There were also a lot more opportunities for me to go to college while playing basketball."
During the summer before her junior year, Willis began to concentrate solely on basketball, while beginning to play AAU basketball competitively. Within a few weeks, she began to receive recruitment letters from schools all over North Carolina, and she new that she had made the right decision.
One of the first schools to contact Willis, was East Carolina. Former head coach Dee Stokes saw some raw talent, and knew that she could mold Willis into a dominating force inside the paint.
As a senior at Terry Sanford High, Willis had received over 90 inquires from schools all over the country at all levels. After some thought, she narrowed her schools down to Clemson, Richmond, and East Carolina.
"I really liked ECU the most of all the schools. They had a great system, and there was a chance for me to contribute right away. Coach Stokes and her staff really stuck with me through out the whole process, and it felt like home."
In the fall of 2000, Willis stepped on campus not knowing what was in store. One of three true freshman on a senior laden team, the chance to play right away was limited.
As a freshman, Willis played in 21 games with seven starts before having her season cut short with a bout of mononucleosis. She averaged more than six points and three rebounds a game, and in her first action as a Pirate, she posted 16 points against Clemson.
"My freshman year was pretty grueling," said Willis. "In high school I played three sports and the scenery changed often with each sport season. But here, I was just playing one sport and I had a lot to learn. Besides all the preseason practices and conditioning, I had to do well in my classes so that I could play basketball."
Rolling into her second season with the program, Willis began to show on a regular basis what she could do for the Pirates. Starting 20 of 25 games, she was the teams leading scorer, with12.3 points a game, and leading shot blocker with 16 on the season.
Her offensive talent exploded during the St. Peter's Holiday Classic, where she scored 42 points and grabbed 11 rebounds in the two-day event on her way to all-tournament honors. But midway through the season, the Lady Pirate program was dealt a devastating blow, when head coach Dee Stokes resigned, leaving the team in limbo.
The Pirate program bounced back in her junior season under the direction of new head coach Sharon Baldwin-Tener, and Willis has been on the rise every since.
"I think that Courtney has gotten better ever year that she has been at ECU," say Baldwin-Tener. "She works extremely hard during the off season and during the season. She wants to become a better player, and I think that she has done that.
"Courtney leads by example in playing hard and making things happen for the team. She has become a more mature basketball player and doing a great job of getting her teammates involved with the game. That is a true sign of a leader."
When Baldwin-Tener and her staff stepped on to ECU, Willis made it a point to soak up everything the coaching staff had to offer.
"When coach came in, she really made me step up and play basketball. She had come to us from some successful programs, and I knew that the team could learn a lot from her."
Averaging a team second best 14.7 points a contest, Willis knew that for the team to be successful, they had to work together. Putting team goals ahead of individual accomplishments, Willis finally saw the program headed in the right directions towards the end of her junior year.
"Against Southern Miss last year, the team could finally see everything coming together. Even though we lost in overtime, we still made it to the conference tournament, which was a goal of ours."
Despite loosing to TCU in the first round by 10, Willis said the last two games of her junior season was the turning point for where the program is today.
The Lady Pirates (13-4, 4-0) are off to its best start since the 1980-81 season when it was 14-3. Winners of seven straight and 11 of the last 12, Willis says that knowing how to win has been the key to the teams success.
"I think the biggest difference this year is that the team knows how to win. Last year we would loose a game and be like 'well at least we were close.' Now, we seem to kick into our reserve tank with five minutes left, wanting and knowing that we can play with anybody in the country. If we could just play that way for 40 minutes, we will be tough to beat."
In her senior campaign, Willis is averaging 17.8 points and 9.8 rebounds a game, and is ranked third in Conference USA in both categories. She has recorded 10 double-doubles on the season and has put herself amongst the best to ever play at ECU, becoming the 18th Lady Pirate to record 1,000 points for a career. With 12 more points this season, she will move into the top 10 in all-time scoring, passing Alma Bethea, who has 1,167 for her career, But once again, individual goals mean nothing to Willis, it is all about the team.
"Scoring 1,000 points really wasn't a goal of mine. It is a nice honor, but I just go out there and leave everything on the court. If records are broken, then there broken. The only thing that I am concentrating on is helping our team get back to the conference tournament and put ourselves in a position to make the post season."
After the 2004 season, Willis will graduate with a degree in communications. She plans to go over seas and pursue a career in basketball, before going out and getting a job in the real world.
"Two summers ago I went to Poland and Finland to play basketball and had a great time over there. To have a chance to travel while I am still young, and to keep lacing up my shoes to play is what I want to do right now. Once that phase of my life is over, there is no telling what I would do next. I might look at a job in coaching or broadcasting, but for now playing basketball is what I want to do."