Whitehall native and Grand Rapids Community College volleyball coach Chip Will (far right) poses with his team after the Raiders won the NJCAA Div. II national championship last fall in Perrysburg, Ohio, over Cowley County. Will’s success is no surprise g
GRAND RAPIDS — It’s natural in the coaching profession to always be thinking, at least subconsciously, about the next move, the next job, the next home.
Fortunately for Whitehall High School alum and current Grand Rapids Community College volleyball coach Chip Will, he’s already found the home he wants to keep in coaching.
Will guided his Raiders to their first ever national Division II junior-college championsip last Nov. 17, as GRCC swept Cowley County Community College, located in Arkansas City, Kan., in three straight tight games, 25-20, 25-23, 26-24. It was GRCC’s first NJCAA women’s sports title of any kind, and its seventh championship overall.
The win was especially impressive as Cowley County had gone the previous two seasons, 58 consecutive matches, without losing. GRCC, which had already had to battle to the final point to score a five-game win over Parkland in the semifinals, had to come from behind through most of the title match as well.
“Most of the matches we had won, we’d built early leads and hadn’t been pushed to the brink,” Will said. “They had to find a way to fight and dig deep. It said a lot about the mentality of the kids and why they were in our program, not just to win a conference but to win the national title.”
Chip’s dad, Mark, himself a longtime basketball coach at Whitehall, attended the final two matches in Perrysburg, Ohio, and said they were as intense for him as any sporting event he’d been involved in.
“In the years of me watching all these different sports, these two matches were some of the most exciting cxomebacks I’ve ever seen,” Mark said. “All these dads were on the floor and jumping up and down like a bunch of monkeys. It was kind of cool.”
The GRCC program was virtually nonexistent when Will arrived at the school, having won just one conference title in team history. No stranger to building programs or to the area, Will had coached West Catholic and Forest Hills Northern, sandwiched around a turn as Grand Valley State’s assistant coach. Will’s run to the state finals with Northern in 2007 piqued the interest of Doug Wabeke, GRCC’s athletic director at the time. He needed a volleyball coach, and Will, a veteran of coaching volleyball in the area, looked like the perfect fit.
“(Wabeke) was a fantastic guy,” Will said. “I was able to connect with him. He’d won three titles coaching baseball at GRCC and I wanted to learn about building a program from him. It was a good fit to take over the program that hadn’t had much success.”
Will enjoyed quick success — this year’s title also marked the team’s fifth trip to the NJCAA tournament in his six years.
“After learning a great deal at Grand Valley, going to four Final Fours, I had learned the blueprint of what it took to build a program,” Will said. “This is such a great volleyball area that just needed someone to dedicate themselves and cared about the program to give it a chance to be successful. It was a natural fit to take over at a great school in town, somewhere I knew I could stay for 20 years.”
It is the “20 years” quote that is interesting. For most coaches at the junior-college level, it represents a stepping stone to a potential Division I gig down the line, a chance to make more money, enjoy the atmosphere of a big-time school, and cut their chops at the highest level of collegiate volleyball.
Will, though, has no such interest. He’s married with a son, and his wife Tracy has a teaching job in Grand Rapids. For him, GRCC represents quite possibly the final stop.
“If I’d wanted (to move up to Division I), I would’ve done that when I was in my mid-20s,” Will said. “It’s a grind to move to Division I or II schools to find opportunities. I’ll probably retire from GRCC. My wife has a good teaching job here. Having our family here in Grand Rapids, it’s not always about the money, it’s about being happy and finding opportunities for kids.”
Will has found opportunities for many such players on his junior-college teams. A main purpose of junior colleges is, after all, to move on to four-year universities no matter what the field is, and 15 of Will’s players have completed their volleyball careers on scholarship at four-year universities.
Will himself is the product of one of those four-year schools, having gained experience coaching at Ferris State University. Coincidentally, he got his start in college coaching working with Tia Brandel-Wilhelm, a recent inductee into Whitehall’s athletics hall of fame, a longtime Ferris State coach, and Will’s babysitter growing up.
“She obviously gave me an opportunity,” Will said. “In the coaching profession, that’s so important. She taught me a great deal about the X’s and O’s, the day-to-day practice and how to develop college athletes, on the court and in the classroom. She was a great mentor to me those first couple years.”
Will had also helped out as a student assistant for the Whitehall volleyball team while in school under then-coach Bryan Mahan. He played golf and tennis as well.
In addition to Brandel-Wilhelm, who recruits some of his GRCC players now that he coaches the junior college, Will said his father Mark was an important resource to his coaching career.
The GRCC gig isn’t Will’s only job coaching volleyball. He also coaches at the Michigan Volleyball Academy, working with younger talent and helping to mold them into successful players. He works with the under-15 national team and is a master coach for the youth program.
The job keeps Will sharp in the off-season and also introduces him to young players who may join him in Grand Rapids. Most of the GRCC roster hails from the area, and all of them come from the state.
“It’s a great opportunity as far as recruiting,” Will said. “A lot of girls that play for that club come play for me. The training style is the same, so a lot of them come in ahead and we don’t have to teach them new things. When you only get kids for two years you don’t necessarily have the time to accomplish everything you want. It gives us a head start and gives those kids a chance to get an inexpensive education and an associate’s degree.”
Will’s work at GRCC has put the Raiders on the map in the juco ranks, and with no plans to slow down anytime soon. Will emphasized building a program when he arrived at the school, and it’s paid off in spades, on and off the court.
“I probably have 20 texts at the national tourney from alumni wishing us luck and how proud they were to be part of the family,” Will said. “Those are the things that make you happy that you’ve made an impression on kids’ lives.”