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Athens' Elijah Williams attempts to drive past Zane Trace's Colby Swain during their District Semifinals tournament game on Thursday, Feb. 28. The Bulldogs lost to the Pioneers 48-28. (FILE)

Athens Basketball: Riding the roller coaster that was Elijah Williams’ senior year

Elijah Williams was diagnosed with jumper’s knee in the summer.

He was hurt before basketball season even began and he said he first noticed pain in his knee during track season of his junior year.

Williams felt it worsen during the summer camps at Marietta, and that’s when he went to a doctor.

When Williams heard the doctor say ‘Patellar Tendinitis,‘ he was shocked by the severity of the injury.

“I just thought it was from not playing sports for two years and then coming back and playing back-to-back and not taking the time to rest.”

The doctor also told Williams about the possibility of the knee worsening, something that did worry the Bulldog point guard when it came to his ability to play for his senior year.

Despite this, he went through physical therapy, and looked to start for the Bulldogs in his senior season after coming off the bench last year.

Williams knew that starting this season would be a strong possibility after the graduation of Micah Saltzman, but he would have to show coach Mickey Cozart that he earned that spot first.

Summer workouts and open gyms could be his opportunity to not only prove to Cozart that he had the talent to start for the team, but to also show that he came into this season looking to be a leader for the Bulldogs.

Talent-wise, Williams always had the ability to start for Athens, and it showed throughout the early part of the season.

One of the biggest things Williams brings to the table is his defensive prowess. He, along with Logan Maxfield, was a defensive leader for the team this season, although the two had slightly different philosophies while defending.

Maxfield’s main focus on the defensive side was keeping his man in front of him, locking his opponent down and making it difficult for them to get a clean look. Williams, on the other hand, played with more of a pitbull mentality, getting into the grill of his opponent and looking to force a costly mistake that could lead to fast break points on the other end.

Together, these two led a Bulldog defense that held opposing squads to 40 points or less nine times during this season and became the identity of Athens.

Perhaps more impressive is Williams’ tenacity and bounce in the paint when going for a rebound.

In his own words, Williams is “5-foot-7 without my shoes, 5-foot-8 on a good day,” but has tremendous leaping ability that allows him to beat out taller players for the board. He attributes some of his growth as a rebounder to running track, as it strengthened his legs, but he knows there needed to be a natural base to build off of.

“I think I got blessed with being athletic,” he said. “I don’t really notice it, people always tell me (about my leaping ability) and I’m just like ‘That’s just something I do.’”

Offensively, Williams has great speed and an arsenal of dribble moves to get himself open space. He prefers to get his baskets in the paint, rather than putting up 3-pointers. His ability to finish is also helped by his incredible athleticism, as he can contort his body and make an acrobatic finish at the basket while having to contend with all the big bodies in the paint.

Williams used all of these skills to start his senior year off well. With that, he contributed to the good basketball the Bulldogs had been playing all the way up to mid-January, where they were deep in the swing of conference action.

Then his jumper’s knee flared up again.

Williams felt awful when he found out it was a serious injury.

“It just sucked,” he said. 

He missed two games in the middle of the season, and he couldn’t practice for ten days either.

Those ten days were rough for Williams. The injury meant more physical therapy and more visits to the trainer throughout the day. He hated not being able to play the game he loves. He wanted so badly to be out there with his teammates.

During this time, the Bulldogs lost to Vinton County 45-44, their lone defeat in Tri-Valley Conference-Ohio play. 

Not playing in that game bothered him. He felt as if he was healthy against the Vikings then Athens may have been undefeated in conference play. 

Cozart felt Willams’ absence against Vinton County.

“Him not being on the court is a big deal,“ Cozart said after the Jan. 18 loss. “He’s gonna get you three, four, five steals a game, he’s gonna get you several deflections, up till about four games ago, he was our leading rebounder.”

Despite the hardships Williams faced during that 10-day stretch, some good came out of it.

It was during that 10-day period that he grew as a leader. Being forced to watch the team from the bench gave him a perspective of the game that he would try to pass along to his teammates during timeouts.

Williams focused in on the play of Brayden Markins, who stepped into the starting lineup in his absence. Markins played well in the two games he started, and Williams stayed on him about keeping up the grind, even when Williams returned. He realized that Markins would be valuable depth for the team down the stretch of the season and into the playoff run.

It was important to Williams to show that he was engaged in the team and the game, even if he couldn’t play. When he was able to come back, the Bulldogs had just won their first game of what would become a seven-game winning streak, which gave the team a lot of momentum heading into playoffs.

Williams played in six of the seven games in the win streak. In this time, he averaged nine points, being one of the Bulldogs’ most consistent players down the stretch.

The win streak also produced Williams’ favorite moment of the season: going into The Alley and defeating Alexander.

The Feb. 2 game against the Spartans was described as a “de facto TVC-Ohio Championship,” and Alexander wouldn’t just roll over and allow Athens to pick up an easy victory.

Emotions were running high for the game. The Bulldogs knew this and used it to their advantage in this tightly contested battle.

Williams said the an emphasis from Athens’ coaching staff coming into this game was to “act like you’ve been there before.” That focus on keeping a cool head in the face of a tense environment helped the Bulldogs secured the victory over Alexander.

Williams played one of his best game of the season, scoring 12 points, including an and-1 layup, which sealed the game for Athens with three minutes left. The Bulldogs won 53-38, with Williams and the team riding high.

The injury bug struck again, however, as Williams had to leave in the middle of the second quarter of the Bulldogs’ 71-46 loss to Logan on Feb. 15. He missed the final game of the regular season and his status for the Sectional Final against Logan Elm was in question.

Fortunately for both Williams and Athens, he was able to play against the Braves. 

Not only did he play, but he led the team with 13 points off the bench, as Cozart was worried about rust coming back from an injury.

Williams also led the Bulldogs in scoring in the team’s final game of the season, as his 11 points was one of the lone high points in the 48-28 defeat to Zane Trace in the district semifinals.

In the flow of the game, Williams said the loss against the Pioneers was his favorite of his career. He loved the atmosphere of playing in the Convocation Center and felt like it created a big moment.

But when the game got out of hand and Cozart began to pull the starters, Williams had the realization that he just ended his basketball career. It was a moment of finality for him, but sadness wasn’t his feeling.

He appreciated the ride during his two years and was grateful for everything he experienced. Some of his fellow seniors were not as lucky to have that perspective of the game.

The Bulldogs’ loss to the Pioneers ended the team’s improbable season on a whimper. Maxfield left towards the end of the third quarter with a leg injury. Eli Chubb played limited minutes due to the flu virus. The game was a tough ending to their basketball careers, but Williams refuses to let this game be the legacy of the 2018-2019 Bulldogs.

“One game doesn’t define us,” he said after the loss in The Convo. 

Now the seniors this season have finished their high school basketball career. They’ll never play together in McAfee Gynasium again. 

Williams isn’t sad.

Basketball was just the start of relationships that will last a lifetime, and he knows it’s not over between him and the rest of the seniors. 

“It’s not (the end) for us. It’s just the end of basketball,“ Williams said.


Tyler Johnson


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