Randy Willis is closing out his 16 years of guiding the San Marin softball program in style.
By Harold Abend | Contributor
You might think a softball coach with nine Marin County Athletic League and five North Coast Section championships in 16-years at the helm would be all business.
Not Randy Willis of San Marin-Novato.
The 65-year old Willis’ coaching approach has produced results at the high school level, and in travel ball with some of Northern California’s top teams that would have allowed him to coach Olympic-level talent.
As the retiring Willis prepares to lead San Marin into his final NCS playoffs — in the afterglow of his 300th career win — he reflects back on the good and the bad, and a desire to go out on top in his own way.
“We have three goals at San Marin. Have fun, have more fun and have way more fun,” said Willis, whose team captured the program’s ninth MCAL title on May 19 with a 7-5 win over Tamalpais that marked career victory No. 300 for the coach.
The Mustangs entered the NCS Division III as the No. 1 seed behind a 21-1 record. The seed earned them a first-round bye and allows them to open at home with a quarterfinal on May 25 or 26. The program’s last NCS title was a Division IV crown in 2007.
“Its amazing how it all came together, MCAL championship, win number 300,” Willis said after the MCAL Tournament finals win sealed his 300th victory. “And what’s best about it is I’m so happy for this group of girls. I don’t think I’ve ever been happier about an MCAL win.”
And now Willis would like to reach that second goal, a sixth NCS crown — not just for him, but for the girls.
“To go out on top and win NCS would be really cool, especially for this particular class.” Willis remarked. “They were freshman the last time we won MCAL and all my classes have won MCAL and NCS at least once.”
It’s no surprise the fatherly approach comes from the fact Willis coached his only child in softball from the time Jennifer Willis began competing as a 9-year old.
When Jennifer transferred to San Marin from Marin Catholic-Kentfield as a junior in 1996, the coach at the time put her at third base despite the fact she was an Under-18 Gold travel ball pitcher with the California Haze — the team Randy coached along with pitching guru John Heliotes.
The next year, Willis was asked to take over at San Marin when he agreed to not bail out after his daughter’s senior year.
Willis put Jennifer in the circle and the Mustangs went 22-0 en route to an NCS championship. The season culminated in a 3-0 win over Casa Grande-Petaluma in 2A Redwood Empire title game.
“It was and still is the biggest win of my career,” Randy Willis said. “No one expected us to win. Casa had six girls that went on to play in college.”
Jennifer, currently an office manager for a computer company in Sonoma County, followed her catcher to Cameron University in Oklahoma as the only two college-bound Mustangs.
The year after Jennifer graduated brought turmoil. Willis was forced to cut two star players right before the playoffs. The team didn’t fare well.
“There was some doubt in my mind, but I had told the AD the year before that my daughter was a player but I was a coach. I knew I would continue, I just didn’t think it would be for 16 years.”
And as he nears the very end of that stretch, he does so with an extremely talented team.
The Mustangs were batting .378 as a team through their first 20 games, and featured seven different players with 13 or more RBIs. And to further underscore just how potent Willis’ lineup is, four of those seven players have at least 10 extra base hits.
Leading the way is senior Dani Albini, who boasted a .564 average with 22 RBI through the team’s regular season schedule. Sophomore Paige McIntosh had a team-leading 23 RBI to go with a .459 average and 14 extra-base hits (four home runs).
Albini, who will take her softball talents and 4.0 GPA to UC Davis in the fall, is also the team’s leader in the circle. She went 18-1 during the regular season, striking out 122 in 103 innings pitched. She entered the postseason with a 0.82 ERA.
Much like the other four seniors on the team, she would be thrilled to close out her coach’s career with a victory.
“He cares a lot about the game and winning,” Albini said. “But (he cares) even more about the girls and them having fun and bonding together.”
Willis has bonded with the girls just as much as they’ve bonded with each other.
“The best thing is the relationships I’ve had with the girls. It’s great when one of them comes back and gives me a big hug,” he said. “It’s more than just softball and pennants. Seeing them go from gangly girls to grown women is a validation of what you’re doing and why you’re doing it.”
A few years ago, Randy and his wife Jane, who works for Novato Unified Schools, bought a place in Casa Grande, Arizona.
“Years ago, we used to go down to Spring Training. Now, we can spend November to May in Arizona and catch the Giants and all the great college ball around there,” the coach said. “The rest of the time we’d like to travel since we’ve never gotten to travel. We have a trip planned next year to Italy, and we’d like to go to Greece and Egypt.”
First, however, there’s business at hand and fun to be had. On the softball diamond.
MANY MUSTANG MEMORIES
Retiring San Marin softball coach Randy Willis reflects on some the best talent he’s seen during his 16-year tenure.
• BEST TEAMS: “For a single year it was the (undefeated) 1997 (NCS championship) team,” he said. “But my best overall team was the 2002-2005 group that won three-out-of four NCS championships.”
• BEST PLAYER HE’S COACHED: While Willis has coached over 80 girls to the next level between high school and travel ball combined, none matches the one-year of travel ball coaching Alicia Hollowell — the USA Olympic team pitcher that holds every high school strikeout record in the state, according to the Cal-Hi Sports State Record Book.
• SAN MARIN’S BEST: Here’s a sampling among the many the coach listed.
Lindsay Benson — The ace of the 2002-2005 team who went on to Utah State.
Kristina Lewis — She followed Benson into the circle and went to NCAA Division II-power Humboldt State after graduating in 2007.
Liz Hartmann — A 2001 grad who played at Notre Dame and is currently one of Willis’ assistants.
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