It has become commonplace for Notre Dame alumni to return to the school as faculty after they receive their degree. For Jeff Worley, not only did he return to his alma mater: he improved the Notre Dame high School experience for hundreds of high school athletes.
Worley graduated from Notre Dame in 1988. He returned to the school a few years later as a boys’ soccer assistant with Coach Brad Wittenborn before he helped start the girls’ program in 1996. As an assistant on the boys’ side, Worley was part of three state championships in 17 seasons.
“(Coach Wittenborn) gave me an opportunity to coach at the high school level and off we went,” he said.
Worley’s Notre Dame Athletics Hall of Fame nod is well deserved as he led the girls’ program for 18 years before stepping down in 2014. He finished with a record of 245-148-21 with nine district titles and two final four appearances. He was named the Region Coach of the Year in 2012 and 2014.
Worley said he wouldn’t have been able to accomplish what he did on his own. “(I’m) thankful for all the players I had the opportunity to work with,” he said. “Without their efforts, the work of the parents, none of this is possible.”
Notre Dame, along with Cape Central and Jackson, also started their girls’ program in 1996. Worley said he noticed the programs filled a void when girls’ soccer started to grow in Cape Girardeau and the surrounding area.
Some of his former players also have returned to Notre Dame to work as colleagues, which Worley says he appreciates more than the wins they helped him achieve. “I don’t think so much now as far as necessarily the accomplishments,” he said. “I think more in terms of the players I had connections with, to see them go on in whatever career they’ve chosen. I think more in terms of the relationships than the wins.”
Alex (Fowler) Graves is one of those colleagues. Graves played four years for Coach Worley and graduated in 2009. Worley said he still remembers her passion for the game and how coachable she was during her time as a Bulldog. “She’s one of the reasons I’m getting that call,” he said. “It’s a neat opportunity.”
Worley doesn’t take for granted the opportunity that he now gets to work alongside his former players. “It tells me that we’ve done things the right way,” he said. “The experience we try to give our students and our student-athletes (is) that being a part of Notre Dame means something. It means so much that so many choose to go into education, go into coaching, (and) they want to be back at Notre Dame.”
“It ended up that way for me. Deep down, I really couldn’t see myself working anywhere else and I was able to get that opportunity and to see so many of our alums get that same kind of opportunity — that’s part of our legacy.”
When Worley looks back on the success he helped create, his two final four teams stand out, but those wouldn’t have been possible without the first season of Lady Bulldog soccer.
“The first year we started, we didn’t win a game,” he said. “My memories from that are as strong as those final four teams. The players that started the program and committed, (who) came out and worked hard (but) didn’t get the result that they wanted, but the effort was there.”
While it may not look like it, Worley said there are a lot of similarities when it comes to teams that won 20 games and the teams that didn’t win many games.
“You love to win, you want to be successful, but there are a lot of ways to define success,” he said. “It’s not just the teams that won state on the boys side or went to final fours or both — it’s every year. There’s something unique about every year and the connection you make. Those mean more to me than anything else.”