PAXTON — Less than a month into Paxton’s latest Final Four campaign, the Bobcats weren’t clicking.
Despite returning four starters, who posted a 29-2 record and a trip to Lakeland in 2019, losses were starting to stack up for coach Jeff Bradley’s crew. Two came against 5A Choctaw, including a one-point loss to the Indians in the season-opener. Another to Florala in the Florala Christmas Tournament. But a four-point loss to Jay in early December stung particularly.
With just a 6-4 record headed into the new year, Paxton felt as if it was treading water.
“We kinda lost that unity early in the year that we ended the year with the year before,” Bradley said.
The Bobcats needed a spark, a leader. They found one in senior Zach Williams, the Daily News Small Schools Player of the Year.
Averaging 11.4 points, 4.1 rebounds, three assists and one steal per night, the 6-foot-4 forward and the son of Crestview coach Steve Williams didn’t boast the best numbers on the team, but his impact was undeniable.
With Paxton at its lowest point, Williams showed his teammates how to raise themselves up.
“After our first couple of games we needed to have a talk in the locker room,” Williams told the Daily News. “I said, ‘It’s not gonna be easy going back, so we’re gonna have to put in the work we did last year.’”
Paxton lost just twice more the rest of the season — once to 6A Lincoln and once to Hawthorne, 70-58, in its second straight Final Four appearance — and it claimed a second straight District 1-1A title with a little revenge against Jay, 55-32; Williams posted a game-high 23 points, nine rebounds, four assists and three steals against the Royals, shooting 7-for-11 with three 3-pointers.
But it’s not the numbers that impressed his coaches and teammates.
“I think what Zach did that really solidified to me his role as one of our team leaders, one of our senior guys was the fact that he understood that so much more because of his dad and the coaching profession,” Bradley said. “He understood that we were losing that atmosphere that we had the year before, and he laid everything down aside from a personal standpoint and put the team so much before himself that he had done everything he could to bond everybody together.”
The Daily News sat down with Williams to discuss those bonds, winning Player of the Year and what the future might hold for the Bobcat star.
First thing’s first, how does it feel to be Player of the Year?
It’s kinda surprising. My face lit up when I got your text. I’m kinda just grateful that my teammates and coaches put me in a position where I could be that player on the floor that they needed me to be. It’s kinda huge to Player of the Year. It’s exciting.
You guys put together another awesome season and made it back to the Final Four with a 22-6 record, and you did it by playing a selfless brand of basketball. I know the end result wasn’t quite what you wanted, but how would you evaluate what your team was able to accomplish?
Speaking on the part about our team, that’s the part I love about playing with them is everybody is so involved with each other. It’s humbling to get this award, but I couldn’t do this without sharing it with them. They’re the reason I’m getting this. Playing with them, it just goes back to we’re a family and playing with them is something I can’t explain. We all love each other and the constant bonds we have — it feels like we were meant to play together. Every time we stepped on that court it was not about what I could do or “Let me do this.” It’s “Let me find my teammates and see what they can do.”
Coach told me early in the year it took some work for your team to recapture the magic you had on your run to the Final Four in 2019, and he said you played a pivotal role in reestablishing that attitude. How did you approach that situation?
We kinda sat down in the locker room after our first couple of games; we we’re just playing sluggish and not playing as the team we needed to be playing as. We thought it would be easy. Four starters from the same team were coming back and it was gonna be a breeze going through everything. It was not. You never need to take a day off, and that’s what we were doing. So, after our first couple of games we needed to have a talk in the locker room, and I said, “It’s not gonna be easy going back, so we’re gonna have to put in the work we did last year.” It paid off in the end when we did.
It certainly did. You guys rolled through the postseason, stacking several big victories together, including a 55-32 win against Jay in the District 1-1A championship game, which was probably your best game. Your teammate Alonzo Wright sat out, and you poured in a game-high 23 points. What do you remember about that night?
It was dead quiet in the locker room. When Alonzo was out, that was the most focused I’ve seen everybody in our locker room. It was huge for me seeing one of my brothers was down, so I went out there with this certain attitude like “Nothing’s gonna stop me from getting this.” So, I got out there and that district championship was for him and coach Bradley. That’s what was huge for me.
How did it feel to be able to step up in that moment?
It was a huge weight off my chest because when you go in you’re thinking, “We’re missing our star point guard. We have to step up.” We had lost to Jay earlier in the season with Alonzo. That was kind of a worrisome part of it. We all went out there with this certain attitude to kill for this championship, and that’s what we did. We had opportunities, and I had multiple opportunities where my teammates trusted me and got me the ball. I just executed like I needed to.
And then you make it back to Lakeland, becoming the first boys team in Paxton history to make it back-to-back years. What was it like being a part of this run?
Our community, they loved that so much about us. Yeah, we do want to win (those championships), but we did bring history to the community and they all showed amazing support. Every person in the community just came to the games and they witnessed the thrill of going back-to-back years. We didn’t win it and that’s heartbreaking, but doing it with the special group of guys we had and the amazing community and support we had and our student who showed out and showed amazing support, that’s what made it amazing as a team. Yeah, it’s great to go back, but the love and support that our community had for us, that’s what made it a better feeling.
What’s next for you?
I’m still a little confused about the future. I still got a couple months left to decide what I want to do, but if basketball doesn’t work out, I plan to go to Northwest and get an AA degree then see from there.
So you don’t have any scholarships on the table?
I had some interest but no full on scholarships yet.
After spending your sophomore year at Crestview with your dad, was transferring back to Paxton everything you wanted it to be?
For sure. Going to Crestview and playing with that amazing group of guys — you know they won the state championship the next year — they formed and helped me get the mindset that I need to step up. Coming back with my brothers I grew up with — it was something that they looked at me and they said that they needed this after a little bit of a rough year. When we came out, everything was business.
Obviously basketball is huge in your family. Why is it so important to you? What do you enjoy about it?
I think it’s the bonds, the relationships you make. You look at my dad, and he is an amazing person at heart. All of the relationships he builds, I feel that. I feel like every person I’ve met through basketball is an amazing heart. It kinda just brings everybody together ’cause it shouldn’t be about you; it should be about the team, and when you have that mindset, it brings you together as a whole. That’s what I love about it is that I can have these relationships, these friendships with my teammates and everybody around me that’s involved.