Bridgewater on the Rise

Lee Williams has the Eagles Soaring to New Heights

September 15, 2004

I remember when the practices were not so serious. I remember when the team members seemed to be there only for the free golf. I remember when the team showed up at the bottom of the Old Dominion Athletic Conference (ODAC) year after year. And I remember when Lee Williams took over the reins of the Bridgewater College golf program in 1999.

quote-bridegwaterSince Williams arrived on the scene, the improvement in the Bridgewater golf program has been obvious. The Eagles have gone from being perennial cellar-dwellers in the ODAC, to the 29th ranked school in the nation (Division III), and a team that is knocking on the door of the NCAA tournament.

Coach Williams points to several factors that explain the turnaround-the support of Bridgewater’s administration, bigger budgets for the program, access to better practice facilities, and so on-but it is clear to me that the coach himself deserves most of the credit. He is the one who brought a higher level of organization to the program, and he recruited the talented players who have been showing up on the squad in recent seasons.

Williams says that recruiting feeds on itself-as the players get better, better players want to come to Bridgewater. He looks back to Tom Cerva who broke several school records after arriving in 1999; Cerva made it easier to recruit Chuck Whetzel, who earned the lowest career scoring average in school history (2000-2004); he, in turn, made it easier to recruit Grady Ruckman, who set the single-season scoring record (76.4) as a freshman in 2003.

Recruiting for a Division III school can be tough without scholarships to offer, but Williams says that students are attracted to Bridgewater because it is “a nice place to be, and small enough that everybody knows everybody.” He says golfers also appreciate having access to Lakeview Golf Club as their home course and practice facility. Now the coach can tell recruits that they have a competitive team as well.

Bridgewater’s recent success looks especially good when compared to the team’s history: from 1977 to 1999 in the ODAC Championship, the Eagles finished last or second-to-last 17 times, including 7 straight seasons before Williams took over. But they have been moving up the ladder ever since.

Bridgewater really began to emerge as a stronger team in 2003. Led by Tom Cerva and Chuck Whetzel, the Eagles finished 5th out of 9 teams at the ODAC Championship and Williams was named the Conference Coach of the Year. In the fall season that year, Bridgewater won two tournaments and came in 2nd at the Virginia Collegiate State Championship.

In April of 2004, they returned to the ODAC Championship and placed 3rd, which they’ve only bettered once in 28 years. Andrew Bartley, from Staunton, made the All Tournament Team, while Whetzel (Dayton) and Grady Ruckman (Verona) were named to the 2003-2004 All Conference Team. And the Bridgewater team scoring average of 311.4 (a new school record) was beat only by Washington & Lee (308.6), and ODAC powerhouse Guilford College (297.2).

So where does Coach Williams lead his team now? He says their goal in the 2004-2005 season is to be competitive with Guilford. And he adds, “I think we have an opportunity to qualify for the NCAA tournament. It’s finally a realistic goal for us.”

Heading into the season, the Eagle’s have four returning players who averaged in the 70s last year (Ruckman, Bartley, Chris Beahm, and Eric Gentry), as well as senior Jarod Brown, who placed 5th in the 2002 ODAC Championship. Williams has also brought in freshman Shawn Harper of Verona (who finished 5th in the high school state tournament last year) as well as some other talented young recruits.

I have had the honor of providing instruction for several of the Bridgewater players over the past 5 seasons, so I have had a front row seat to see the building of a very respectable program. And now my upcoming junior golfers look at Bridgewater as more than a good, local school-they see it as a place to play competitive golf as well. Hopefully some of them will be a part of future Eagle teams. Who knows, some day we might talk about a golf legacy that Lee Williams started at Bridgewater.

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