Williams rebounds from ineligibility, stars for women’s basketball team


Ed Williams attended Sanford-Brown College (Mo.) from 1992-1994, but didn’t graduate from the school. Nineteen years later, Williams is strongly considering returning to college to earn a degree.

Williams’ new-found motivation stems from the ambition of his daughter, Gwen Williams, a senior guard for the Webster University women’s basketball team. Gwen Williams is on track to graduate with a degree in education this December, which would make her the first person from her immediate family to earn a college diploma.

Senior guard Gwen Williams tries to dribble around a Fontbonne University defender during the Webster University women’s basketball game at Grant Gymnasium on Thursday, Jan. 17. Williams was ruled academically ineligible and missed the final 11 games last spring but is now averaging 10.1 points and 4.2 rebounds per game this season. “I’ve noticed the past four or five years that whenever something is going on with my family or relationships or anything like that, when I play basketball, it just goes away,” Williams said. PHOTO BY MEGAN FAVIGNANO.

Gwen Williams’ father and mother both attended Sanford-Brown, but neither graduated. Gwen Williams’ two older sisters did not attend college after completing high school. One of her cousins and a couple of her aunts did graduate from college, but beside them, Gwen Williams is well on her way to achieving something only a select few of her relatives have accomplished before.

“I wanted more in life,” Gwen Williams said. “I wanted to meet new people. I wanted to learn new things that I didn’t learn in high school. I wanted to achieve goals that I know were very, very hard for my family members. … Nobody in my family went to college. I’m going to be the outcast and go. I’m always the outcast in my family anyway.”

In January 2012, Gwen Williams’ road to graduating from Webster took a detour when she was ruled academically ineligible. As a result, Gwen Williams missed the final 11 games of the women’s basketball team’s 2011-2012 season. Prior to being ruled academically ineligible, Gwen Williams played in 15 contests and led the Gorloks in scoring with 9.5 points per game. She also averaged a team-high 2.7 steals per game.

But instead of dwelling on the disappointing news, Gwen Williams rededicated herself. She said she significantly improved her GPA, which enabled her to rejoin the Gorloks for their 2012-2013 campaign. Gwen Williams has helped Webster to a 9-8 overall record and a 6-2 mark in conference play this season. She has played in every contest, averaging 10.1 points, 4.2 rebounds and 3.3 steals per game.

“I could have easily gave up,” Gwen Williams said. “I could have easily been just like, ‘Oh, well, whatever, I’m just going to not go there this semester. All right, I’m just going to drop out, and then I’ll go to another school.’ But I didn’t. I didn’t want to let my team down.

“And I didn’t want to let myself down either, looking back years later like, ‘Man, I could have went somewhere or helped the team out.’ I’m not that type of person that is going to betray my teammates. And half of them aren’t even my teammates — they’re like my best friends in real life. I didn’t want to do that.”

Gwen Williams cited “a lack of focus” and “personal problems” as the reasons why she struggled academically in the fall 2011 semester. The semester was Gwen Williams’ first at Webster, as she spent the preceding two years at St. Louis Community College-Florissant Valley. Gwen Williams, who graduated from Fort Zumwalt West High School in O’Fallon, Mo., said the academics at Florissant Valley were “really easy,” and she expected schooling at Webster to be easy as well.

“(Being ruled academically ineligible) was a big smack in the face,” Gwen Williams said. “It was a life lesson learned. Everybody goes through that stage, and mine just had to be last year. Now, my grades are perfectly fine.”

Ed Williams said part of his daughter’s academic struggles were his fault. Ed Williams works as a team leader at a Chrysler plant in Michigan and lives with his family in Sterling Heights, a suburb of Detroit. He said he was having financial difficulties in the fall of 2011, which caused Gwen Williams, the only person from her family currently living in St. Louis, to lose focus on school.

Ed Williams said he is in a much better financial state today, which has eased his daughter’s mind. He said he’s proud of Gwen Williams for bouncing back from her ineligibility to get to where she is today.

“(The ineligibility) wasn’t her fault — I fell a little bit as a father not providing her with the proper finance at the time,” Ed Williams said. “For her to come back and not let that kill her spirits, it takes a strong young woman and a determined one to do that. My hat goes off and a lot of love goes off for her because she’s done that, and I’m so proud of her. It makes me want to even try to go back to school and be determined like she is.”

Ed Williams isn’t the only one in his family considering going to college. Gwen Williams’ younger brother, a senior at a high school in Michigan, is also contemplating attending college. That would be welcome news for Gwen Williams, who hopes she’s blazing a trail for the rest of her family by attending college.

“I feel like me being the only one that’s graduating from college or attending college, period, it’s just making my niece and my nephew and my younger brother determined,” Gwen Williams said. “‘Yeah, we can do it if my sister did it or my aunt did it.’ Hopefully, I start the trait to where everybody is going to start going to college.”

When she graduates from Webster, Gwen Williams wants to return to her hometown of Benton Harbor, Mich., to teach and coach basketball at the city’s high school. She hopes her story will motivate others to attend college as well.

Jordan Olufson, Webster’s women’s basketball coach, said Gwen Williams is “a fighter” and “relentless” for rebounding from the ineligibility. He said whether it’s on the basketball court or in the classroom, Gwen Williams “wants to win,” and her work ethic has enabled her to do just that.

“That’s what this is about — it’s about getting a degree,” Olufson said. “Anytime — if it’s a fifth generation or a first generation — to be able to see them walk across the stage and get a diploma, and the fact that it is the first in her family, it’s surreal. It’s awesome, it really is. It warms your heart. That’s what makes this job so special. Wins and losses are one thing, but being able to give a student athlete that opportunity to be the first in the family — I mean, it’s awesome, it truly is amazing.”

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