Senior defender Andrea Willis was recently featured in the Homecoming Football Game Program on Oct. 24. (Photo by Mark Philbrick/BYU Photo)
Andrea Willis, now a 5-foot-7 senior from Riverside, Calif., was a shy but determined second grader.
She came home from school one day clutching a flyer about the local AYSO soccer team, begging her mother Tammy to sign her up.
As Tammy recalls, “The first time she put on her first pair of cleats, she was in love.”
Willis has been playing soccer ever since, which is good news for the fans, team and coaching staff at BYU. The senior defender dons her blue and white for the last time this season as she anchors the back line in what looks to be a very promising year for women’s soccer.
But things haven’t always been easy for her. The summer before Willis stepped foot into the BYU locker room she tore her ACL and was forced to redshirt what would have been her freshman year.
BYU Coach Jennifer Rockwood remembers making the decision to postpone Willis’ eligibility and breaking the news to her.
“She knew it was for the best, but she had big tears rolling down her cheeks as we talked about it,” said Rockwood.
Willis said it was difficult not only that year but also last season as she watched all the girls she entered with graduate and leave the team.
“Last year was the hardest,” Willis said. “All the girls I came in with were graduating and I was still here.”
But, as always with Willis, she bounced back. Her mother remembers the injury well.
“Her immediate reaction was devastation,” Tammy said. “But within a week, she accepted it and started concentrating on acclimating to BYU and doing what needed to be done in the classroom. She really embraced it and moved on.”
Off the field
The time Willis took to concentrate on the classroom has continued to pay dividends throughout her college career. The senior has been named to the Academic All-Mountain West Conference every year she has been on the team.
“I make it a point to study,” Willis said. “I’ve also been blessed. I get good grades pretty easily.”
But academics is not the only area outside of soccer in which the exercise science major (she wants to be a nurse) invests a great deal of time. She also participates in local and even international service. Willis made the journey to Nicaragua with 10 other teammates last summer for a group service project.
Willis was put in a group with Rockwood and teammate McKinzie Olson. The trio spent four days helping a small business owner make improvements to his motorcycle repair shop.
“An experience like that is life changing,” Olson said. “It changes relationships and allows you to know people on a deeper level. I’m glad I was able to get to know Andrea better through that.”
The service in Nicaragua was much different than Willis expected.
“I realized how much we have and to be grateful for it,” she said. “Those people have nothing and they are the happiest people I have ever met.”
In addition to this special service, Willis also participates in various ongoing service projects in the community and through BYU. She often speaks at firesides, helps with soccer clinics and academies and plays a part in the “Buff Don’t Puff” campaign as well as Sports Hero Day.
Rockwood feels like Willis is someone she can count on if there is a service opportunity.
“Andrea is always willing to volunteer her time and energy. She’s so eager to help out wherever she can, and she’s a great role model for the youth.”
Awards and Recognition
The only thing that rivals Willis’ accomplishments off the field is the recognition she has received for her accomplishments on the field. Since the first time she blinked under the lights of South Field in 2006, Willis has racked up conference, regional and national accolades.
The MWC named Willis Co-freshmen of the Year after her first season. She was also part of the West Region Freshman Team. Her sophomore year brought even more acknowledgement as a First-Team All-Conference and MWC Championship All-Tournament team selection.
“I’ve never expected anything I’ve gotten,” Willis said. “I’ve got people all around me making me look good all the time.”
Despite Willis’ humility, the awards continue to pour in. In her junior year, she was named to both the MWC First-Team and the All-Tournament Team for the second consecutive year. The conference went a step further in naming the center back MWC Defensive Player of the Year. In addition to conference recognition, Willis was selected for the NSCAA/Adidas All-West Region First-Team.
Tammy Willis is just as surprised by the awards her daughter has received.
“There are a lot of athletes playing in the world today,” Tammy said. “To be honored is a real blessing.”
If anyone doubted the impact Willis would have in her last year as a Cougar, coaches, players and the soccer community have expressed their confidence that she’s saving the best for last.
Less than five weeks into the season, the senior was named a Preseason All-American from SoccerAmerica.com, a Hermann Trophy Watch List Candidate and the MWC Defensive Player of the Week for Aug. 31.
But topping off an impressive collegiate career won’t be all fun and games for Willis. The ever-ambitious soccer team, which lived by the mantra “Expect to Win” last year, has set high expectations for the season.
Rockwood mentioned the MWC regular season championship as a priority as well as winning the tournament. An appearance in NCAA competition won’t be enough this year as the team has set a goal to reach the Sweet 16 of that tournament.
“We always want to have high expectations,” Rockwood said. “We’re committed to finding ways to get better each and every day.”
Willis will have her work cut out for her, anchoring a defense made entirely of talented but inexperienced freshmen.
“Andrea is going to need to step up and be more of a leader on and off the field and I think she’s ready for the challenge,” Rockwood said. “She has the most experience of anyone on the team and she has to integrate new defenders and help build confidence for the people on either side of her.”
The captain recognizes the difficulty in helping her new team members adjust to the BYU system and feel like they fit in with the rest of the squad, but she believes that with their abilities, the Cougars won’t lose a step.
Not only does Willis have to face the task of working with new players and trying to reach new heights but also confront the reality that in a few months time she will be leaving BYU and Cougar soccer for good.
“There are two different sides to it,” Willis said. “I’m kind of happy to be done, but I’ll be sad because I won’t be a part of BYU soccer anymore. A big part of my life will be missing.”
Teammate Olson said Willis’ graduation will impact her personally and as a player.
“That kind of experience and leadership is priceless,” Olson said. “We will definitely miss her when she’s gone, but we’re taking advantage of her while she’s here.”
Coaches and teammates are not the only ones who will be sad to see Willis go. This will likely be the last time her family will see Willis play soccer after nearly 15 years.
“It’s always kind of sad at the end of each phase.” Tammy said. “We reminisce about memories made. There’s a definite sense of loss.”
No matter how bittersweet it will be when that last game rolls around, Willis knows she needs to concentrate on the here and now, showing the strength and poise that have marked her play the last three years. And when that final whistle blows, Willis can look back at a college campaign full of awards, academics, friendships and experiences of which few players can ever dream.