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Madison resident Susan Wivell brings a wealth of experience to the dugout as head coach of the Westbrook Middle School softball team. (Photo courtesy of Susan Wivell )
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Sports have played an important role in Susan Wivell’s life for a long time. While growing up, Susan was involved in a variety of athletic activities by competing for the cross country and track programs at Daniel Hand High School in Madison, where she was also a cheerleader. She also played softball in the Madison Senior Girls’ Softball League. Now, Susan is using her years of experience in her role as head coach for the Westbrook Middle School softball squad.
Susan and her husband Bill raised their three children—Matt, Kevin, and Hollis—in Madison with all three participating in Madison Little League. Both parents got involved as Bill coached the boys and Susan coached Hollis at various levels. Susan spent six years on the board of Madison Little League and was the program’s All-Star coordinator for a number of years. Through her involvement, she came to know Teg Cosgriff, who was also on the board and is now the athletic director for Westbrook schools.
“We’ve known each other for many years through Madison Little League, and our kids grew up together,” says Susan, who still lives in Madison. “He’d left me a message about a middle school softball coach opening, and I had a number of concerns about taking the position. He’s a friend, and I thought he deserved a phone call back to tell him no. But after a long conversation, he’d addressed my concerns, which ended up not being concerns by the end of the conversation.”
Susan accepted the position and, with no leads on an assistant coach, she approached her longtime friend Holly Bilcheck. Earlier this year, the pair met over dinner and Susan pitched her the idea of co-coaching Westbrook’s middle school team.
“After dinner, she was excited about the idea, which was really great, because it was somebody I knew I could work with who has an athletic background,” Susan says. “I knew we’d have so much more of a chance at success if we could do this together. We have complementary personalities that would bring a great dynamic to team. I couldn’t have done this without Holly.”
Based on her conversations with Cosgriff, Susan knew that she and Bilcheck were going to face some challenges as they took the reins of the program. Cosgriff explained that Westbrook does not have in-town softball opportunities, meaning that middle school is first chance most girls get to play the sport. Cosgriff was excited to bring Susan and Bilcheck on to the coaching staff, and he’s already seen the benefits of their experience.
“Susan, coupled with her assistant Holly Bilcheck, brings an amazing knowledge base and passion that is contagious and fosters strong relationship building among the team,” Cosgriff says. “The focus on learning, fundamentals, and fast-paced practices with many stations and the ability for players to get many repetitions was fun to watch. The progression of growth and development among the players and team as the season evolved was noticeable and bodes well for the growing future of Westbrook softball.”
Susan and Bilcheck began the season by holding a parents’ meeting, where they introduced themselves, outlined their goals for the campaign, and shared different opportunities for player development beyond middle school. The Knights started practicing in late March with 14 players on the roster, including 10 who were in 8th-grade.
“This season started from square one, but the team exceeded our expectations in the end. The 38 days we spent together were intense, fast-paced, and fun,” says Susan. “To reinvent the program and aim it towards lofty goals is a huge undertaking. The vast majority of the 14 players came in with little-to-no softball experience. The to-do list was so much longer than the time we had, so we simply focused on getting the girls to do the basics correctly and consistently.”
Westbrook practiced every day after school, and Susan and Bilcheck encouraged their athletes to put in some work on their own. Throughout every practice and each game, the two coaches kept notes on things to review and what to work on. While Westbrook finished with a record of 2-7, Susan saw plenty of positives during her first season. Many of the towns that Westbrook competed against had strong youth programs and players with years of experience.
“I told them early on that I don’t care if we win games, but let’s look like we know what we’re doing and build from there. That’s how we’ll be successful,” Susan says. “The overall record was not indicative of the tremendous progress the girls made. Victories in the stat book took precedence. It was such a great group of kids, and that made the whole thing so fulfilling.”
“We made huge strides from where they were the first week to the last week,” she continues. “It was tremendous growth, and they exceeded my expectations. It was heartwarming to see that great level of growth.”
Susan started coaching when Hollis began playing in Madison Little League and continued coaching her through the All-Star level. Susan’s daughter went on to play travel softball, and Susan continued working with her there, too.
Susan also gained a lot of experience working with kids through her job as a paraprofessional in special education at the elementary and high school levels in Madison. Susan’s first career was as a research chemist, and she brought her two careers together when she taught science classes at Hand.
Although Susan is semi-retired, she still offers her services as a science tutor. In her spare time, she enjoys working in her vegetable and flower gardens, as well as hiking and cooking. Susan and her husband also spend a lot of time traveling to watch Hollis play Division I softball at UConn, in addition to visiting their sons in Denver and Manhattan.
Susan is already thinking about what she wants the Westbrook Middle School team to achieve next year. She’s been working with Cosgriff on ideas to promote the program and draw more players.
“We had 10 8th-graders who are going to high school, so we need to get girls interested in the sport. Holly and I hope we’ve been able to spark some excitement and inspire young athletes to give softball a try,” says Susan, who is currently working on completing her five-year coaching certification. “We need girls who are motivated to learn something new, work hard, and have a great time doing it. I hope the future players and their families embrace this great opportunity by not only coming out for the team, but by taking advantage of the myriad of local resources out there like Little League in neighboring towns, local clinics, summer travel ball, fall ball teams, indoor winter leagues, and private instruction. It’s such a fun and exciting sport to play and watch.”
Susan appreciates the positive feeling that she gets from coaching the team with her good friend. It means a lot to Susan to know that she and Bilcheck are making a difference in the lives of up-and-coming athletes in Westbrook.
“This tremendous opportunity just fell out of sky, but in the end, it was really rewarding,” Susan says. “I’ve been involved with sports since I was a child and highly value being able to promote softball, as well as to have my role as a coach serve as a model for young women. The lifelong confidence that sports can instill is especially important in the lives of adolescent girls.”
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