Cross country: Richland's Williams set to lead from front

September 23, 2013 

 RichlandÕs Michael Williams feature

Richland senior cross country runner Michael Williams is a strong contender this season, despite a hamstring injury that kept him out of the sport as a sopomore.

PAUL T. ERICKSON — Tri-City Herald Buy Photo

The first Mid-Columbia Conference cross country meet of the season comes Thursday at Fort Walla Walla, one of two meetings of all eight MCC schools.

It was around this time last year and on this course that Richland’s Michael Williams, then a junior, made a big splash by winning the MCC meet, beating out more accomplished runners.

He proved it was no fluke several weeks later, sweeping the second league meet. He placed second in district and became the first Richland boy to run at state in five seasons, finishing 70th. Along the way, he picked up a share of the MCC boys runner of the year.

And while few outside the Richland program would have picked Williams to contend with the league’s best heading into last season, his coach had an inkling of what he could accomplish.

“He’s about as competitive a person as I’ve ever known,” said Bombers coach Jay Bartlett. “And he’s pretty confident, too.”

“When he ran at Chief Joseph (Middle School), he was an unknown even to us. We heard about him, but he wasn’t at an all-star at that level. But it didn’t take long for us to figure out he would be pretty good before it was all said and done.”

Williams didn’t come out of nowhere last year — he came out of a sophomore season lost to a hamstring injury.

“It was strained pretty bad, and it took a long time to get over it,” Williams said. “I didn’t run cross country, and it took a while to get back in the grove of training. ... I trained really hard last year, and then it paid off.”

Williams, coming off a pair of third-place finishes in his first two invites of the season, first started running seriously in middle school when his brother convinced him he needed some interests outside of school.

Chief among those interests is playing piano and writing music. But convinced he needed to pick up a sport, Williams decided running was the thing. After all, he always was one of those kids who looked forward to running the mile in gym class.

“I found out I was kind of good at it,” he said. “I didn’t used to like doing a whole lot of distance, but when I got toward eighth grade, I started getting more committed to running longer distances.”

He won his first race in a Richland Bombers uniform, the freshman race at the Meadlander Invite, and ran with the varsity seven the rest of the season. He placed 15th at districts and 25th at regionals, showing the promise of things to come.

“I was a little surprised by that,” Williams said.

He was disappointed the way that great junior season ended — 70th at state. But as his coach well knows, the starting line at Sun Willows Golf Course in Pasco the first week in November is a different beast than any other.

“I was talking with another coach at the end of last season, and the first time we both went to the state meet it was a different experience,” Bartlett said. “Especially for an individual runner (without a team), you can get swallowed up. It was overwhelming for him. He wasn’t really in contention for the podium. It was kind of get him there and have him get through the course.”

Not so this season.

A podium finish (top 16) is very realistic depending on where he is at the end of the year,” Bartlett said. “I think he was probably the third or fourth fastest 2-miler coming back from track in the state, so ...”

For Williams’ part, he is working on improving his time and improving his strategy.

“Just learn how to race smart,” he said. “Because I’m not very patient. That’s what Bartlett thinks, and it showed (at the Highlander 10 days ago). I went out way too fast, and then I slowed down a lot. It’s why I ended up getting third.”

If Williams lacks for patience, it is in part because of his unusual endurance. Even his coach says he has a seemingly endless gas tank. Williams is even better at 10 kilometers than the 5K or 3-mile courses of high school cross country. That is one of the reasons he should be a good match for college’s longer distances, and he has a visit to Washington State’s campus planned this fall.

“Just looking at him, he really is a junior in his development,” Bartlett said. “In his racing, in his training, we didn’t do much with him his sophomore year. He’s really kind of green in some ways.”

Green or not, Williams will run this season with a big target on his back as the top returner in the league from last season. As the guy.

“He’s going to be very competitive in every race he goes into,” Bartlett said. “He won’t win every one of them, but I think he will compete for lots and lots of those races.”

Williams said last year’s state meet is his motivation for this season.

“I felt like I was more motivated to do better this year,” he said. “I was a little disappointed, but I just moved on. I know I’ll face a lot of those guys in races this year. ... I just have to get faster and make my cross country season better.”

Kevin Anthony: 582-1403; kanthony@tricityherald.com

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