The path to the University of Oklahoma was a unique journey for junior guard Lauren Willis. Instead of accepting scholarship offers from other Division I schools, Willis decided to attend Oklahoma and play under head coach Sherri Coale, as a walk-on.
With the financial and emotional support of her family, her dream of playing for OU came to fruition.
Coming from an athletic family—her dad was the place kicker for Kansas State’s first football bowl team (1982 Independence Bowl), and her mother, an NCAA All-American in Track and Field (4x400 meter relay) and 1984 Big Eight outdoor triple jump champion at Iowa State—Willis has certainly carried on the family name.
“I had Division I offers from other schools, but to be honest, I felt like if I had committed to those schools, I would have been settling for something where my heart wasn’t. I set my mind on coming here to being apart of this program no matter what it took,” said Willis.
Willis made her OU debut against North Texas on Nov. 27, 2007. Despite playing three minutes and picking up a foul, she had taken an important step toward reaching her goals. During the 2007-2008 season, she ended up playing in a total seven games.
“The first time I stepped onto the court in a game I really wasn't nervous. I was so proud to wear the Oklahoma uniform, it was such a sense of accomplishment to be out there,” said Willis.
Though it was her dream to play for an elite basketball program such as OU, Willis, a language arts education major, also had the desire to attend a prestigious university that offered a complete college environment, and with her family’s love and support the University of Oklahoma became home.
“If you throw out basketball, Oklahoma is a great school with the complete college environment I was looking for, but at the same time, it was important to be in a successful basketball program where I was surrounded by great people,” said Willis. “Again, my family gave me the greatest gift and that was believing in me, and not just in basketball but in all phases of my life, but in basketball I wasn’t scared to challenge myself.”
During her sophomore season (2008-2009) Willis saw her minutes increase, playing in a total of 15 games and averaging 4.3 minutes per game. While still considered a walk-on, she scored a season-high five points against Creighton on Dec. 3, 2008.
“It didn’t matter what my status was in terms of how hard I was going to compete, but I felt like my margin of error was a lot less. I felt like I always had to be on point,” said Willis.
Through her hard work and sheer dedication to better herself as well as her team the Overland Park, the Kansas native was rewarded in a very big way at a team Christmas party that same season, in the form of a full scholarship.
“It was the best Christmas present I’ve ever received. Leave it up to Coach Coale. She does have a flair for being dramatic. It really caught me off guard,” said Willis. “It meant as much to me as anything that Coach Coale recognized and valued me being a part of the team. I felt like I had accomplished one of my goals.”
In 2009-2010, Willis has played in 12 of the Sooners' 13 games averaging 11.8 minutes per game, and posted a new career high in points with seven against Creighton, the team against which she set her first career high in the previous season.
Throughout her high school career, and even during her time at OU, Willis has earned the reputation of having a lethal shot from 3-point range, shooting nearly 48 percent in high school and nearly 26 percent this season.
“My role on the team is to take and make open threes. I worked really hard on the offseason on my game and feel really confident in how I’m shooting the ball,” said Willis. “This is a program of high expectations and every person has to strive to be better. I’ve worked really hard in order to continue to contribute and expand my role.”
Willis, who would like to go back to the Kansas City area to teach high school English, coach women’s basketball, and start a family of her own when finished at OU, will have one more year of eligibility left after this season.
“Bloom where you are planted.”
Willis has certainly taken that quote to heart, by taking a chance on coming to OU as a walk-on for Sherri Coale and through hard work earning an athletic scholarship to play in the Crimson and Cream.