Rob Williams began his head coaching career at Lee County in 1989, and now 23 years later, he earned his 500th win Friday. (Herald file photo)
LEESBURG — It was too cold for a Gatorade shower, too much of a rout to celebrate wildly and too early in the season to get that excited about Lee County’s season-opening 15-0 win against Westover.
But make no mistake, what happened Friday at Trojan Field was a huge, massive, gigantic deal to the folks in Leesburg.
Rob Williams, who has coached Lee County’s baseball program since 1989, earned his 500th career win just as the sun was setting on a game that wasn’t in doubt what would happen from the very first pitch.
“Luke Roland hit one out of the park at our very first at-bat on the fourth pitch,” Williams said. “It sure was a nice way to start the season.”
And an even better way to kick off a milestone afternoon for Williams’ amazing high school baseball coaching career.
“It’s really a nice feeling. I’ve had a lot of good kids over the years, a lot of good coaches. It’s just nice,” Williams said, trying to find the words to describe what No. 500 meant to him. “I felt a little like (Deerfield basketball coach Gordy Gruhl said he felt like) when he won his 1,000th game recently. I did a lot of thinking about the early years and (reminisced a little).”
Surely on his mind was Williams’ most famous pupil to come out of all those years of coaching, Buster Posey, the former Florida State star and 2010 National League Rookie of the Year, who is now a World Series champion with the San Francisco Giants.
And Williams was equally on Posey’s mind Friday when Posey found out about his former coach’s monumental win.
“Congrats to Coach Williams on his 500th victory,” Posey said in a text message to The Herald from Scottsdale, Ariz., where he’s readying himself for the Giants’ 2012 season at spring training. “What an amazing accomplishment that can only be obtained by hard work, dedication and a passion for the game of baseball.”
Williams came to the school 27 years ago after first graduating from Valdosta State — where he played second and third base — then served as an assistant coach for eight years at Colquitt County.
He said what he lacked as a “so-so” player on the field, he tried to make up for as a coach.
“I wasn’t very good, but I was someone who loved to play,” Williams said with a laugh when asked to — now being a coach — grade himself on his days as a player. “The kids we have coming up today are a lot better than I was, that’s for sure.”
He was hired by Lee County in 1985 as an assistant on coach Butch Watts’ staff, then was promoted to head coach four years later. Fast forward 23 years, and he’s one of the most successful prep baseball coach’s in Georgia’s history, averaging nearly 22 wins a season for the last two-plus decades.
Of course, it’s no secret that Lee County’s program — which Williams has built into a powerhouse that has produced some amazingly talented players, most notably Posey — has never won a state title in school history. But after Friday’s stellar start to the season, which was highlighted by another Posey — Buster’s youngest brother, Jess, tossing a three-inning perfect game — this may finally be the Trojans’ year.
“There wasn’t a big deal made about it or anything. The kids knew and the announcer said something about (it being No. 500 after it was over) but other than that, it was just another game, another win for us,” Williams said modestly. “I’m actually glad to get it over with, and I’m sure the kids are too. Now we can just focus on the rest of our season, which I think can be a good one if we get more days like the ones we got out of Jess and those guys.”
Those guys brought the heavy lumber to Trojan Field on Friday as Lee posted nine runs in the first inning, six in the second and then didn’t even need to send a batter up in the third. The game was called as Lee moved to 1-0 to start the season, while Westover dropped to 0-2 after falling to Schley County in its 2012 opener Thursday night.
Andrew Stroud was 3-for-3 with a three-run homer that capped the scoring in the second and finished with five RBI. Jimmy Shiver smacked two doubles, Pedro Cruz picked up where he left off last year and went 2-for-3 with three RBI, and Lee’s heralded senior star, Daniel Nichols — who is headed to UGA after this season — added a single in the win.
Of course, Jess Posey’s performance gave Williams the most satisfaction on a truly satisfying day.
The senior, who missed most of last year with a back injury, faced the minimum number of batters in three innings, threw just 25 pitches and ended with a perfect game.
“He struck out six, looked really solid, gave up no hits and got his work in,” Williams said. “I was so happy to see that, especially after what happened last year with the injury. He looked really sharp, and what a great way to overcome something like that and come back strong.
“We wanted to get him 60 pitches and then let our other guys come in and finish it out, but he didn’t even need that. That’s how sharp he looked.”
Williams, who had to wait almost an entire year for No. 500 after the Trojans lost in the first round of state a season ago — leaving their coach stuck on No. 499 — got a little lucky Friday by the fact the game was even played. Heavy rain threatened to cancel the contest early in the afternoon, but the baseball gods were smiling down on Williams on Friday and spared Leesburg from the heaviest portions of the precipitation, while the rest of Southwest Georgia was thoroughly drenched.
“You know me,” Williams said before game time, “I always want to play and I never want to cancel. We hope to get this one in.”
They did, and it ended in what Lee County principal Kevin Dowling calling a “special” day.
“Rob’s been a good friend of mine for about 18 years now since I moved to Lee County in 1994. We’ve coached together, taught together, I’ve seen his kids grow up, he’s seen mine grow up and I can’t think of a better thing to happen to a nicer guy. It was a special moment (out here Friday night),” said Dowling, who became Lee’s principal in 2006 and was there by his friend’s side when Williams was inducted into the Georgia Baseball Coaches Hall of Fame when Williams reached 400 wins a few years back. “He’s as fine of a man as I’ve ever known, and this is an amazing accomplishment.
“I mean ... half a thousand? All at one place? Who’s going to match that?”
At Lee County, in the next 50 years, probably nobody.
“You know, I said special and you say it was monumental,” Dowling began, “but if there was a word greater than that, I’d say use that to describe what he’s accomplished. It’s just that great.”
The Trojan fans may not have made a big deal about the milestone Friday, but that’s because the baseball team’s booster club has plans in the works to honor Williams next Friday during Lee’s home game at 6 p.m. against Tift County.
“Rob’s so modest, he’s the kind of guy who will appreciate it, but he’s not going to make much of winning his 500th game. I can already picture him sitting over in the dugout (during the festivities) muttering something like, ‘I’m not sure what in the sam-hell they’re doing out there — we’ve got a game to play,’ ” Dowling said with a laugh. “Rob’s a very blue-collar guy who just believes in hard work, and it shows in the way he approaches everything, and it rubs off on his players, most of whom become well-grounded young men, good workers, good husbands and good fathers.”
Williams agrees that he’s not much into the fanfare of
No. 500 and will be mostly focused on Tift County next Friday. And because of that fire to stay locked in on adding to that win total, he knows his time coaching is no where close to coming to an end.
“I don’t think I’ll make 1,000 — I think that’s out of the question,” the ol’ ball coach said with a chuckle. “But I’ve still got some juice in me.”