By Steve Gunn
Williams was a breakout star for the Orchard View varsity last year as a sophomore, and played a big role in helping the Cardinals post a perfect 9-0 regular season and win the Lakes 8 Conference championship.
He wasn’t crushed, however, when football was shut down, because he assumed he still had soccer to fall back on. He had been a rising star on the Cardinals’ varsity soccer team as a freshman, before switching to football last fall.
But now it appears that he may not be able to play soccer, either.
According to media reports, the MHSAA is prepared to postpone high school soccer, volleyball and swimming for schools in the southern Lower Peninsula until next spring, if Gov. Gretchen Whitmer does not give those sports permission to play by Tuesday, which is Sept. 1.
Teams in all three of those sports have been conditioning and practicing for several months, and their seasons were supposed to begin more than a week ago. They just kept working hard and waiting for news from Lansing about their fate, but nobody offered any solid clues.
That changed earlier this week, when MHSAA Executive Director Mark Uyl said the governor must decide about soccer, volleyball and swimming by Sept. 1, or he will likely pull the plug.
On one hand, Williams has a pretty good attitude about the whole situation. He understands the dangers posed by the spread of COVID-19, and he would still have the possibility of playing varsity basketball this winter – if the state allows it.
“It would give me more time to practice my basketball skills and get better,” he said.
On the other hand, Williams thinks he, his teammates and coaches deserved to have a decision from the state much sooner.
“They probably shouldn’t have waited until the last minute to cancel football, and now soccer,” he said.
Great at everything he plays
Williams excelled in both soccer and football in youth leagues, but always preferred soccer as he passed through elementary and middle school.
As a freshman he immediately made the Orchard View varsity soccer team, started as a forward, and became a goal scoring threat. He made an already good OV squad even better, and helped the Cardinals post a 15-5-3 record and win a district championship.
“I think he is only the second freshman I have brought up to varsity in 10 years,” said OV varsity soccer coach Kyle Skodack. “He just showed true potential. He’s a natural athlete and he’s good at every sport he plays.
“It was crazy how fast he was as a freshman, and how well he controlled his body. Opponents couldn’t really bump him off the ball. Some freshmen are kind of small and get pushed off the ball, but he didn’t. He showed he definitely belonged on varsity.”
Williams had every intention of playing soccer again last year as a sophomore, before Fred Rademacher came to OV as the new varsity football coach, and installed a new attitude on a team that went 3-6 the year before.
Williams worked out in the weight room with a lot of football players in the offseason, met and talked to Coach Rademacher, and finally decided he wanted to return to football.
“I just wanted to try something different,” he said. “During weightlifting Coach Rademacher was there, and he was a great coach to be around. He’s a great teacher, and he gives you the joyful spirit that you need to play. I debated on whether to go back to soccer or not, and I just decided on football.”
Williams was an instant hit with the OV varsity, playing running back and defensive back and returning kicks with his blazing speed.
He started making his presence obvious in Week 2 against Kent City, when he had a 44-yard touchdown interception. He had a breakout game in Week 5 against Manistee, returning two kickoffs 80 yards for touchdowns, and scoring twice more on runs of 45 and 33 yards.
He also scored four times against Muskegon Heights in Week 7, with touchdown runs of 44, 59, 9 and 18 yards. He finished the game with 143 yards rushing on only five carries.
“He was a really nice surprise,” Coach Rademacher said. ‘He had been a soccer player the year before, then a few weeks before the season started he showed up and said he wanted to play football. He ended up being an All-Conference basketball player, too. He’s a good athlete.”
Williams said he was surprised by his instant success in football, and loved being part of an undefeated championship team.
“I didn’t think I could do all of that until I actually went out there on the field,” he said. ““It was an amazing season. It was great just being on the field with everyone. I had so much love for them. I knew we were going to win some games, but I didn’t think we were going to be undefeated and make the playoffs.”
A frustrating, confusing situation
Williams was excited about the 2020 football season, especially with fellow offensive standouts Owen Swanson and Brenden Hyatt returning to the lineup, as well.
But like everyone, he had a sneaking feeling that the season might be cancelled, so he just kept working out hard until the bad news finally came from Lansing in the middle of August.
“It hurt me,” Williams said about the football season being postponed. “I was upset. I was really looking forward to playing with the juniors from last year and the guys coming up. We were going to have a pretty good team. We were all working hard for what we wanted, and then we found out we couldn’t even play.
“I actually figured something was going to come up and we probably weren’t going to be able to play. I had already said to myself, if that happened, I would go back and play soccer. I didn’t tell anyone that, though. I kept it to myself.”
Williams texted Coach Skodack shortly after football was cancelled, and the coach was thrilled to learn he was coming back.
The OV soccer squad had another great season last fall without Williams, going 17-5-1, winning another district title and advancing all the way to the state quarterfinals. But the Cardinals lost 11 seniors from that team to graduation, and will only have two starters returning if they somehow are allowed to play.
Having Williams back in the lineup, along with Hyatt, Swanson and several other football players who joined the team, made the outlook for the season much brighter, according to Skodack.
“It was a huge confidence booster for us,” the coach said. “It just adds more firepower to what we already had coming back. Darius is a natural scorer. He has an eye for the goal and he doesn’t slow down. He’s not only good at scoring goals, but helping other players score, as well.”
Williams has been pumped up about the soccer team’s potential for the past few weeks, since he started practicing with the squad again.
“We got some seniors from football to come over and play,” he said earlier this week, before the news broke about the season being in imminent danger. “We are thinking we could really do something here. Hyatt is pretty good at soccer. He hasn’t played in a while, but he’s still got it. We also have a great defense in the back, and our goalie is pretty good.”
Now everything is up in the air. The OV soccer players, like thousands of other athletes who compete in soccer, volleyball and swimming, will be waiting over the weekend to learn if Gov. Whitmer makes an announcement and lets them play.
Williams was already a little concerned about the spring, because he loves running track, but would also want to play football if the season actually happens then. Now he may have to choose between track, football and soccer, if they try to cram all those sports into one very busy spring season.
If it comes down to making a hard decision, he says he may skip his junior year of football and soccer altogether.
“I would have to go with track, because that season was taken away from me as a sophomore (due to COVID) and I was really looking forward to it happening,” Williams said.