‘Coach Jackie’ closes chapter #1

Published 4:57 pm Friday, July 21, 2023

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WINDSOR – As a prep and collegiate athlete, Jackie Williford Copeland was as fierce as they come.

Now, years later, Copeland’s intensity remains as her calling card, but yet inside her soul is a teacher, a coach, a friend, and a loving family person who has never, ever hesitated to help anyone in need.

After spending 30 years of her life teaching and coaching young student-athletes on and off the field, Copeland has hung up her whistle and closed her playbook upon retiring last month from Bertie High School.

“I’m not a stay-at-home, sit in a rocking chair type of retiree,” Copeland noted. “There’s another chapter in my life coming. I’m going to take a brief break, but I’ll be involved in sports, I just don’t know the where and the when right now.”

A native of Bertie County, Williford began honing her athletic skills by playing youth softball with the Cashie League at Davis Park in Windsor. She also attended numerous youth basketball camps during the summer months.

Copeland graduated in 1987 from Lawrence Academy where she was an All-Conference performer in basketball and softball. Copeland scored 1,476 points in her high school prep basketball career, was a four-year all-state honoree, a two-year team MVP, and led her squad to a perfect 26-0 record and the state championship. On the softball diamond, Copeland was a three-time all-state selection and two-time MVP.

After high school, Williford enrolled at Atlantic Christian College (now Barton College) in Wilson. She excelled there athletically as well, earning all-state, all-tournament and team MVP recognition. She led Barton to its first-ever Conference Carolinas (then CIAC) Women’s Basketball Championship in 1990-91. The Bulldogs went 22-5 that season and advanced to the NAIA District 26 Finals. Along the way, Barton defeated Wingate in the second round of the NAIA National Tournament – snapping the their 97-game home winning streak.

Copeland holds two degrees from Barton: K-6 Elementary Education and K-12 Health and Physical Education.

She launched her teaching/coaching career at Elizabeth City Middle School where she was the head girls basketball and softball coach from 1993-95.

Copeland came back home in 1995, teaching at Southwestern Middle School for two years where she also was the head softball coach.

She made the move to Bertie High School in 1997 where she remained until her retirement in June of this year. There, Copeland spent 25 years as the head softball coach; head tennis coach for 17 years; and head girls basketball coach for two years.

In softball, Copeland led the Lady Falcons to five conference championships and league runner-up honors on several other occasions. Bertie qualified for the state softball play-offs in 23 of her 25 years, advancing to the fourth round on three occasions.

“We never made it all the way to Walnut Creek (the longtime site of the state softball finals), but we got close a few times,” Copeland recalled. “We lost twice by two or less runs in the state semifinals. I told my girls afterwards how proud they made me and our county. But it was like that every season…to keep winning and keep rolling.

“It’s all about the kids and that’s the way it should be,” Copeland continued. “I loved every team I coached and every player I coached, no matter if they were a regular starter or only played a couple of innings. Each and every one of them was important to the overall success of our teams.”

And, as Copeland noted, there’s more to sports than just the X’s and O’s.

“The similarities are the same between athletic contests and life,” she said. “In both, you learn and apply certain skill sets and learn to be a valuable asset to your team, and how to communicate with your team. Some days you win, some days you lose, but what you learn from both is the key.”

Over the course of 25 years of coaching softball, Copeland has witnessed many oddities. She recalled one of her batters laying down a perfect bunt, but the ball was so badly overthrown to first base that the runner turned it into a homerun.

At a home game one season, play was halted when a deer ran onto the field. There was another game when a dog ran onto the field and began chasing the ball.

She recalled, while coaching at third base, getting hit numerous times by foul balls.

“I was hurting on the inside, but I couldn’t outwardly show that. I needed to show my girls how to be tough, how to fight through adversity and continue playing,” Copeland shared.

Copeland wasn’t alone during her coaching journey. She offered thanks to her assistant softball coaches over the years: Ray Cobb, Don Daniels, Jeremy Dawson, Darren Cottle, Israel Byrum, Jessica Hoggard, and Brook Bowen. Jessica White served for 19 years as the team manager.

“They, like me, put in the time and effort because they loved the kids and the Bertie tradition,” Copeland said.

She also thanked her family – father and mother, Jack and Edith Williford; sister, Angela Mizelle; and husband, Hunter Copeland – for all their love and support during her career.

In hindsight, Copeland said she is very satisfied about the path she chose.

“Not a thing…I wouldn’t change a thing about my time teaching and coaching,” she stressed. “I don’t regret being where I’ve been. I feel I’ve done all I could for the students in my classrooms and the ones I’ve been so fortunate to have coached over the years. It’s just time to close this chapter of my life and to open the next chapter.”

In closing, Copeland offered words of advice to the up and coming generation of prep athletic coaches.

“I would say to them to do all they can do to be there when your student-athletes need you, on or off the field,” she said. “Coach each of your players equally. These young players want to first feel loved and respected, after that they’ll do anything in the world for you on the field.

“Teach them life skills; teach them about togetherness; teach them about effort and motivation. Winning is not everything. Winning is when you give over 100 percent of your effort, and that can be applied in coaching and in life,” Copeland concluded.

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

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