Jason Williams' dream of becoming a basketball player at Winthrop never came true. Then, he made the leap to the track and field team. and his success and national recognition has been on the rise ever since.
How Williams became one of the premier high-jumpers in the Southeast is an interesting tale with numerous twists.
Williams and fraternal twin, Phillip, were always taller than the others boys in Cleveland, N.C. They naturally gravitated to basketball but tried other sports along the way. Phillip and Jason had grown to 6-foot-6 and 6-4, respectively, by the time they reached West Rowan High School and were instrumental in the Falcons winning back-to-back state titles.
Phillip, the oldest by 29 minutes, earned a scholarship to Winthrop, where he became a four-year standout and a key contributor to last season's squad that went 29-5 and knocked off Notre Dame in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
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Jason opted for Cape Fear (N.C.) Junior College to improve athletically and academically. After one year, he moved to Rowan/Cabarrus (N.C.) Community College.
"I came to Winthrop hoping to walk on and play some basketball," the younger Williams said. "I had to sit out a year, so I became one of the team's managers. Sitting on the bench and just watching didn't get it done. I needed to compete."
Track coach Ben Paxton gave Williams, who had grown to 6-6, the opportunity.
"We knew he was a two-time state champion in North Carolina without much hands-on training," Paxton said, "but he hadn't jumped since high school."
According to Paxton, Williams began hanging around the track team, expressing an interest about six months prior to the season.
"When he realized he wasn't going to be playing basketball, he committed himself to track fully," Paxton said. "And I mean fully. You're not going to find a person who will work harder or is more coachable."
There was a lot of coaching required in the early going. There were numerous "nasty" habits that had to be dealt with. Plus, there was the rust of a four-year layoff.
"I was trying to jump like shooting a layup in basketball," Williams said. "I had basically taught myself because I didn't have a high jump coach in high school."
Paxton and Williams, a fifth-year senior, used his first indoor season to work on steps and technique. It was a long process.
"Everything seemed to fall in place just before the home meet here last March," Paxton said. "And he qualified for NCAAs and made it to the East Regionals."
Williams admits he was so nervous he clipped the bar on his first attempt at 6 feet, 9 inches, a height he had been routinely clearing. He cleared the next three heights with ease, but that first miss caused him a spot in the jump-off.
"That one jump cost me the NCAAs," said Williams, who holds the school and Big South Conference outdoor record at 6-11. "I still think about it."
Better jumper this year
Paxton said he expects that disappointment to make the theater major a better jumper as a senior.
"He went into that meet not believing he wasn't a NCAA-caliber high-jumper, but he left telling himself he made a stupid mistake and that he should have gone to the NCAAs," Paxton said. "Now, he's keenly aware that he's as good as anybody, and he has a great amount of confidence heading into the fall and spring."
Williams said he hopes to use the indoor season, which starts Saturday at Clemson, as a time to work on a few technical problems that still persist.
"I need to be consistent on my approach to the bar," he said. "You need to have your steps right and trust them every time. That's what I'm going to work on the most."
Williams and standout hurdler Kandrick Cooper are the big names on the Eagles' roster, but Paxton says the team has more weapons than the two seniors.
"We're very excited about the men's team," Paxton said. "If they stay healthy, we're good in every event for the first.
"We have people who can score in the conference meets in the throws, jumps, sprints, hurdles and distances. That's never happened."
Cooper, who holds the school and Big South records in the 60-meter hurdles (7.83 seconds, indoors) and 110-meter hurdles (13.98, outdoors), qualified for the Eastern Region last year and appeared a shoo-in for the NCAAs until a fall in the 110 derailed his hopes.
Cooper, who had spent time in the hospital to have a kidney stone removed, led the finals through the first nine hurdles but hit the last and fell.
"If he doesn't fall, he's a contender at nationals," Paxton said. "I mean, a legitimate contender."
Cooper has never been beaten in the Big South indoor or outdoor meets.
Paxton said he's also looking at Daryl Green, second and third a year ago in the indoor and outdoor 400 meters. Green holds school record in the indoor 200 and 400 meters (21.84 and 47.82) and 400 outdoors (47.06).
The Eagles are the two-time defending champions in the distance medley and should be as good, if not better, considering the way Trevor Beesley, Brad Orr and Northwestern High School product Brandon Hudgins ran in cross country. Add in freshman-of-the-year Casey Lyons, and there's the making of another outstanding season in the distances.
Travis Coleman, one of top throwers in the conference last season, returns for his sophomore year.
Two freshmen who could have an early impact are Keary Simms, an all-state triple jumper from Florida, and Billy Pearce, an all-state thrower out of Virginia.
The women's team will be among the youngest in Paxton's tenure at Winthrop.
"They're probably a year away," Paxton said. "We have a lot of sophomores who are still learning."
Leading the women will be Lewisville's Felicia Boulware and Ashley Howard, two top throwers in the BSC last year. Howard was an NCAA qualifier in the outdoor discus.
Paxton said Sasha Robinson has really turned the corner and should only get better in the 400, while hurdler and triple jumper Sara Young is finally healthy.