Herb Williams grew up with baseball.
It’s in his DNA.
From moving through the ranks of Danville’s Little League system to becoming a storied player at Dan River High School, baseball has been a part of Williams’ life for a quarter century.
Williams, in his first year as George Washington High School’s coach, discovered his journey to high school baseball was a bit different than that of his players.
The Eagles fielded 16 players this season, with only four of them returning from last year’s squad. Further complicating matters, those four were the only ones with real experience beyond the Little League system, meaning many of Williams’ players hadn’t played competitive baseball in nearly a decade.
Baseball is a game of moving parts.
There’s guessing whether the pitcher is throwing his fastball, changeup or curveball. There’s adjusting to a guy throwing a straight fastball in the mid-80s to a guy throwing a slow changeup. Knowing when to go in hard for a ground ball or when to stay home on a fly ball hit to the outfield.
Learning these parts requires a mixture of experience and instinct, things the Eagles weren’t exactly afforded the luxury of this season.
“A lot of these things are really easy when you play baseball on a consistent basis, but a lot of these guys haven’t played baseball since doggone middle school,” Williams said. “So, that’s made everything harder for them and really had them playing catch up in practice and games.”
A new world
For Shawn Watlington, who hadn’t played ball in a decade, it was a whole new world.
“The biggest thing I had to get accustomed to was the speed of the game,” Watlington said. “The ball is coming a lot faster at you and with a lot more bite and guys are throwing faster to you. You really have to catch up to things. It took me a couple of weeks to get back into the routine, but I feel like I’m settling in and have gotten better as the season’s gone on.”
Luckily for GW, Williams is just as vetted a coach as he is a player. Last season, Williams teamed up with his personal friend and legendary coach Ed Fulton in leading the Eagles’ squad. It was the second time he had linked up with Fulton, with both serving as coaches and helping build Averett’s baseball program in the mid-90s.
Under the direction of its veteran coach, GW got busy learning how to field short hoppers and fly balls; learning how to pivot and field ground balls and how to position their bodies to make the throw; and how to guess pitches and make contact with pitches coming in hot.
It takes time to create great things, or as the adage goes, “Rome wasn’t built in a day.” For Williams and his players, it was a phrase that hit close to home. At the beginning of the season, routine fly balls led to a series of errors that allowed three runs to come home on the play. However, as the weeks progressed, those mistakes started subsiding. What were once botched fly balls became routine outs.
Back to basics
“We really had to start with the basics with these guys,” Williams said. “We weren’t a team that came in and just started working on honing our game. We had to start with the basics of hitting, fielding, catching, throwing the ball. We really had to start from scratch. But the guys that stuck with have really improved. You can’t look at our record and tell it, but we’ve come a long way since the beginning of the season.”
Along with Williams, junior shortstop and starting pitcher Ethan Stephens has been instrumental in helping his teammates make the transition. Hint: it might have something to do with his humility.
“I think coach has done a great job coaching us and really trying to get this program back to what it used to be,” Stephens said. “But I’ve always kind of viewed my job as being somebody who encourages guys. Who kind of takes them along as they go and try to help them with whatever they’re struggling with.”
All in all, it was a season of firsts for the Eagles.
“This is the first year I’ve coached so many kids who haven’t played baseball before,” Williams said. “When I came up, you played baseball pretty much year-round, but that’s not really the way it is for a lot of kids anymore. It’s really been a back to basics and fundamentals type season. But I’ve seen a lot of change. At the beginning of the season, we had guys who were trying to square up and bunt standing on the plate and when we started throwing breaking pitches at them, we had a couple almost fall out of the box. A lot of those things aren’t as present as they were at the beginning of the season.”
Watlington, who stars at wide receiver and free safety for GW’s football team, noticed subtle differences and similarities between catching a fly ball and a football.
“There are a lot of similarities between the two,” Watlington said. “I look at any pop fly like catching a football. I know I have to stay with it, haul it in, and then make a decision on what to do with it.”
Even though Stephens, a three-year member of the team, is a seasoned veteran, it was a year of firsts for him as well.
“I’ve really learned how to be patient and not point fingers,” Stephens said. “When somebody drops a fly ball in the outfield, I go over there and try to help encourage them and keep them up. It’s not my job to yell at people. If I see somebody struggling with their footwork on turning a double play, I’ll go up and ask them if they want to work on that in practice. I’ve learned the importance of encouragement and keeping people up.”
Walking the halls, no quit in these guys
It’s remarkable GW was able to field a team this season at all. Due to a declining interest in the sport, Danville’s Little League system has taken a major hit along with middle school and jayvee ball, those eliminating the Eagles’ feeder system — meaning there was real doubt leading up to the season whether GW would be able to field a team.
“There wasn’t a time growing up where I wasn’t playing baseball,” Williams said. “In the summer, I’d play in the Connie Mack and Mickey Mantle programs and you don’t have those programs anymore. There’s been a drop in Little League participation and where there used to be 14 or 15 teams, you’re lucky to have a dozen in each division. All of that really hurts and then you combine that with the fact we don’t have a middle school or JV team, and that really eliminates our feeder system.”
There’s a saying in sports that goes, “walking the halls” that refers to coaches picking kids out of the hallways and trying to persuade them to join a team. It’s an experience Williams and his coaching staff know all too well even though they didn’t exactly walk the halls.
At the beginning of the season, Williams held a meeting in GW’s library where he encouraged students to come out for the team. It worked and suddenly the Eagles went from having just a handful of guys to nearly 30. GW was in business. With the newly formed team in hand, GW got down to the business of learning.
“…We just really focused on the basics with these guys. Fielding, hitting, catching and throwing,” Williams said. “It was a grind and a tough process, but it really gave us guys who truly wanted to be out on the field playing.”
Players began with hitting off tees, then eventually worked up to soft pitch and low-distance pitching. Once Williams and his staff started seeing his guys learning the fundamentals and making contact, they graduated players to the pitching machine. That’s when things got interesting for Williams and the Eagles.
“Baseball has a way of weeding people out because it’s not as easy as most people who sit around and watch it think it is,” Williams said. “So, once we got the pitching machine out and started giving them balls at game speed, a lot of those guys got frustrated and our numbers started dropping a bit.”
One of the most impressive things about this GW team is its attitude. There have been numerous times this season where the Eagles’ inexperience have led to a plethora of errors and nine or 10 run innings. After each one of these big frames, it was hard to find a player walking off the field with his head hung low. That attitude has continued into the dugout where there’s very little finger-pointing happening or blame being passed. Instead, players walk off the field with their heads held high and offering constructive criticisms to prevent mistakes.
“Whenever somebody drops a ball in the outfield or boots a grounder, I just tell them to get ready for the next one,” Stephens said. “That’s the thing about baseball. If you miss one, the next one will come to you. It’s my job as one of the upperclassmen to help develop them instead of yelling at them and telling them what they need to do.”
Perseverance has been the Eagles’ theme this season. Despite posting a 1-17 record, including a 1-12 mark in Piedmont District play, Williams has only had a few players quit on him. It’s proof of the never-die, never-quit attitude found in not only GW’s baseball team, but all of the school’s athletic programs as well.
“Competition is something all GW student-athletes want,” Watlington said. “We never want to go out and play below our standards. That’s not GW baseball or athletics at all. Anytime we’re down big, we keep playing, keep our heads down and keep working hard. We never let up because we’re not supposed to. We just keep going out and we were born with that fight inside of us.”
Stephens added, “We have guys out here this year that are becoming dedicated to this game, and that’s what I love about this team. I’m surrounded by guys who are out here to push me and push others to make us better and help us get to that next level. That’s what I love about [Shawn]. His main sport might be football, but he’s always going to come out here and give110 percent and that’s what I love about all these guys.”