College Sports

The Three Amigos

From left, coach Ben Paxton, high jumper Jason Williams and distance runner Matt Elliott will represent Winthrop in the NCAA track and field championships beginning Wednesday.
From left, coach Ben Paxton, high jumper Jason Williams and distance runner Matt Elliott will represent Winthrop in the NCAA track and field championships beginning Wednesday.

Sitting in a stifling rental car six weeks ago, trying to get the air conditioning cranked high enough to escape the oppressive Midwest heat, Winthrop track and field standouts Jason Williams and Matt Elliott turned to their driver and coach, Ben Paxton.

"Both of them looked at me and said, 'We're coming back here in six weeks,'" Paxton said. "You kind of laugh that off."

Not anymore.

The group that bills itself "The Three Amigos" has returned to Des Moines, Iowa, for the NCAA Outdoor Championships, completing a prophetic journey that began with that simple but bold declaration. The two athletes, as they did at the Drake Relays on April 24-26, qualified as two of the best in the country and will compete for national championships in their respective events.

Paxton, in his 16th year with the Eagles, will hopefully watch the two return glory that Winthrop hasn't seen since 1994 -- an All-American selection. And there's always that pesky national championship that one of the two could nab with a superhuman effort.

"There are 360 Division I track teams. About 80 get someone to nationals," Paxton said. "About 35 get more than one to nationals.

"This is the equivalent of going to the Final Four."

Williams and Elliott became only the third and fourth Winthrop athletes to make it to the NCAAs, following Jeff Greene, a double-qualifier in 1994 and still the only All-American in program history, and Octavia Goode in 2004 (former cross country star Adam Growley made it to the championships in 2000). Williams (high jump), Elliott (1,500 meters) and Paxton left on Monday and will get used to the track -- which they were on six weeks ago -- before competing beginning Wednesday.

Williams has his preliminary jumps on Wednesday and finals are on Friday. Elliott's prelims are on Thursday with finals on Saturday.

The time before and in between will be spent mimicking some of the exact steps the group took at the Drake Relays. Don't mess with a winning streak.

"Most of the time Jason rides shotgun, I'm in the back," said Elliott, a first-year runner who transferred from Presbyterian last year. "We love listening to oldies music. We usually make a trip to Target. We're going to just live it up."

"I wouldn't mind getting the same hotel," said Williams, who only began collegiate track two years ago. "We had this nice little restaurant called Godfather's, a pizza place. They had this golf game and we got real competitive and we played it. Of course, me and Matt beat coach."

Paxton, beaming like a proud papa, credited the work his two stars put in. Although each has had scarce experience at Winthrop, each displayed the willingness to let Paxton bring them along.

Williams missed nationals by one jump last year. Elliott, after four years of running cross country at PC, cut an incredible 45 seconds off his time between December and June.

"In December, I thought, 'Wow, this kid's going to run fast,'" Paxton said. "In February, I said, 'This kid's going to run real fast.' In March, I knew he was going to be a player. I was talking with (Florida State coach Bob Braman), he's a two-time national champion coach, and he said, 'That kid wants the finish line more than anybody.' You can't coach that.

"(Jason) had a whole year in retrospect to go, 'I am good enough.' He went into that meet knowing he was going to make it."

Williams was already a familiar name to Winthrop after his brother, Phillip Williams, played four years of basketball. Jason, after serving a year as basketball manager, decided to return to high jumping, in which he'd won two straight high school state championships.

He leaped 7-1 to qualify and figured he'd have to repeat it or add an inch to make All-American this week (the top eight finishers earn the designation). To win the event is a tall task -- one of his opponents is Nebraska's Dusty Jones, the world's top jumper with a 7-8 -- but Williams said he'd accomplished so much already, maybe one more surprise is on deck.

"I'm on cloud nine. I'm like that star football player at the university," Williams said. "I'm there because it was my goal, which some people are still trying to do."

Plus it got him out of the undeserved shadow of his brother.

"He respected me and said, 'You did better than me in college,'" Williams said. "That was really good of him to say."

Elliott's meteoric rise has been spectacular, after transferring to Winthrop for graduate school with one year of eligibility remaining. Despite having not run track since high school -- PC only had cross country -- Elliott has shattered school records and become a fixture in the nation's top 20.

"We were trying to transition from cross country to track," Elliott explained. "By the second meet at Virginia Tech, that was my first opener with the mile, I ran a 4.14. We were hoping for a 4.20. The next meet was at East Tennessee, I broke my first school record.

"It kind of snowballed from there."

Like Williams' ecstatic celebration when he cleared 7-1 at Regionals -- "I don't know who jumped higher, me, Jason or (athletics director) Tom Hickman," Paxton joked -- Elliott knew he'd qualified. Gazing in the stands, he saw his parents raising their hands.

"My mom only missed two of my meets my whole time at PC," Elliott said. "I was so glad they were able to be there."

The three spent the two weeks between Regionals and Nationals by practicing, realizing the surface at Winthrop's Irwin Belk track is the same in Iowa. The heat in Rock Hill has actually helped, since Iowa will probably be the same with less humidity.

"Nothing can be hotter than Tallahassee," said Williams, noting the track temperature at Regionals was a balmy 120 degrees.

The group left Monday with the same goal -- let's have fun, but let's also bring back some gold.

"We're going to go back to Iowa and just have a ball," Elliott said. "Hopefully come back as All-American. Taking two scrubs like Jason and I and building us up in two years' time ... only because of the grace of God and coach Ben Paxton have we been able to accomplish the things we've done."