Covering the Land of Lincoln

New RPS athletic director Dawn Williamson plans improvements

ROCKFORD — Dawn Williamson walks into Jefferson High School. The walls of the large open area outside the gym, known as The Triangle, are lined with glass trophy cases. Banners also hang from the walls, each one picturing a senior playing one of the 24 sports Jefferson offers.

The J-Hawk insignia is everywhere. Plastered on the outside of the school. The outside of the gym. Inside The Triangle.

But the J-Hawks were at the bottom of the NIC-10 all-sports trophy standing last year. And the year before. And the year before that. Guilford moved up to third, but Auburn finished sixth and East tied for eighth.

For over a decade now, three of the four Rockford Public Schools have usually finished in the bottom half of the all-sports standings.

How does Williamson plan to change that? She has replaced Mat Parker as the new overall athletic director for RPS. She knows the area well, having lived in Rockford for 15 years while working for Beloit College in various roles: women’s volleyball coach, assistant track coach, recruiting coordinator, associate director of admissions, assistant athletic director and, most recently, director of recreation and activity.

She is a former star herself, both in the classroom and on the athletic field, being named academic All-Big Ten Conference as a volleyball player at Wisconsin. She was also an assistant volleyball coach at Princeton. She comes across as pleasant, hopeful and positive — but also realistic. Here are nine questions with the new head of RPS athletics:

Sports banners are on display inside of Jefferson High Schools triangle on Thursday, Aug. 4, 2022, in Rockford.

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You are a Black woman in a role usually held by white men. You are a former Big Ten athlete. You won conference titles as a head coach. How does that affect your perspective?

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

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

“I’m old; I graduated in 1993, so that was before specialization. Back when I played, this is just what people did, you played three seasons of sports. Coaches wanted you to, because they wanted you to stay in shape all year.

“All I know is there is a push to push them younger and younger, but I think middle school and elementary school is not a specialization time. That is still the time to figure out what you are good at. You might be good at something you don’t even know you are good at just because you haven’t been exposed. That’s the time, even if you are great at basketball, why not try baseball? High school makes sense to me. I am not against specialization, but too early is tough.”

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

“The big start is making sure all those teams in middle school are full and doing a great job there. And hopefully — and all we can do is hope — that translates over, they have this awesome experience in middle school and they want to keep doing it when they get to high school. That’s the focus right now. For all the teams. We don’t want just volleyball and basketball to be full. We want soccer and tennis to be full so when they move up to high school they are ready to roll.”

How, exactly, do you improve middle school 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 at middle schools aren’t full-time like at the high schools, they are teaching and doing other things. So if our office can offset some of the work that was put on the ADs so they can be in the hallways, asking, ‘Have you thought about soccer,’ all of that stuff, making sure we have strong coaches and people to work at the gate and concessions stand, they can do all of that stuff and we can do some of the administrative and background stuff and take it off their plates. That’s the hope. We will let you know if that works. But in my head, that works. That’s the plan.”

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Numbers are a problem for RPS schools in several sports. For instance, the four RPS schools co-op to form one girls golf team. How do you fix that?

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

“I will listen to anything. That doesn’t mean I will do it, but I will definitely listen to it. My goal again is to grow middle school and make sure their teams are full. Not sure what shot we will have of making high school teams full if middle school 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 done it, then it’s not even a decision. They are just not doing it.”

“I also want to partner with some of these sports organizations out there. Our kids are already going out with some of these clubs. Is there a way we can work with them? Please, coach our people, but also advocate they come back and play on our teams for high school ball.”

Trophies are on display in Jefferson High Schools triangle on Thursday, Aug. 4, 2022, in Rockford.

Guilford, Auburn and East have all built gleaming new fieldhouses in recent years and Jefferson has refurbished its gym. Does that attract athletes?

“People aren’t coming out for facilities. They are coming out because you asked them to. Or they are coming out because their friends are. Or they are coming out because you believed in them. The facilities are great — I love this gym. It’s a really great space — but that’s not why people are coming. They are coming because someone took an interest in them. Even if they said, just try it for a few days and see what you think.”

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

“It can’t hurt. That’s an awesome thing. But I would still lean on that’s not why you should do sports. It’s great if you use it to go to college. It’s great if you are awesome enough at your sport that you can play professionally at any level. But the stuff that you get from sports — strong academics, being fit, understanding how to collaborate with other people, all the stuff that employers are going to be looking for later in life — are things you are learning through athletics. It is great to have someone that came from this area and made it, but there are different ways of making it. I would hate for that to be the only way we say is success. Most of us who are good at sports didn’t get a chance to do that, but we got all this other stuff. We’re better parents, better spouses, better co-workers because of this.”

What do kids get out of sports?

“Any time I get a chance to talk about sports, I am talking about the benefits of playing a sport. Any chance I get to talk to parents, principals, teachers, everybody is going to hear the benefits of sports. I don’t want people to think why are we doing this. Let me tell you. This is why schools across the country invest in athletics, because it’s going to give them these qualities they are going to take with them the rest of their lives.

“Some lessons are better learned when you are successful, but lessons are still there even if you are not. People who do sports, in general, are going to have better grades, they are going to do more other stuff in school, they are going to be healthier, there are lists and lists of things. Even social/emotional learning that people are talking about now, all of that is huge in athletics. Everything that is happening in our classrooms is happening in our fields and courts and pools.”

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

“It is going to be a challenge certainly to move the needle. But I love a challenge. So do all the people who are here. That is the athletic mindset. Everyone in the district, not just in the athletic departments, is thinking, ‘How do we make this more awesome?’ Even if we were the best in the state, we would want to get even better. Everyone is in it. They are trying to get their best done.”

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