March 7, 2012
By Shawn Sell
Matt Williams just wanted to feel comfortable. Whether it's the college he chose or the position he played on the diamond once he got there, Williams has sought the security of knowing he is in the right spot to succeed. As the starting shortstop for his hometown UC Bearcats as a sophomore, Williams has found just that.
Williams' level of comfort didn't come overnight. He first had to settle on a college destination, coming out of Cincinnati Hills Christian Academy (enrollment: 400). After attending a camp for high school prospects at Marge Schott Stadium, Williams decided staying home was the right move for him and before long, UC head coach Brian Cleary found what he thought would be his shortstop of the future.
"I tried to stay close to home because my family is from here (and) I wanted to stay around so they could come see games," Williams says of his recruitment process. "UC just felt comfortable when I got down here for a visit. It just felt comfortable; it felt right."
"Matt had come to our camp and so we had a chance to see him," Cleary says. "He was one of a growing number of guys that had a tremendous interest in UC. As is becoming more and more the case, he had a great interest in us, so we took a lot of time doing our research on him making sure that we were able to evaluate him. As we did and learned more about his physical ability and character, we felt really comfortable that this was going to be a guy that was going to be fun to coach and fit what it was that were looking for in a shortstop."
When Williams arrived on campus in the fall of 2010, it quickly became apparent that if he wanted to play as a true freshman, it was going to have to be somewhere other than his natural position of shortstop. Stationed at short for his fourth year as a starter was Chris Peters, forcing Williams to look elsewhere for a job. He would eventually find one just to Peters' right at third, but the UC newcomer made sure to soak up as much as he could from his senior teammate.
"Chris was a good mentor for me to look at because he had been here for four years," Williams says of the current Toronto Blue Jays farmhand. "It was good to see someone that had been here for awhile and is now playing in the pros. He was definitely a good guy to look at."
When Opening Day 2011 rolled around, Williams found his name in Coach Cleary's starting line-up as he would 55 more times that season. But unlike when he was growing up in little league and then high school, it wasn't at shortstop, instead at third. Even though Williams hadn't played much third base, Cleary was convinced the long term payoff would be worth it.
"For a freshman to play third base is difficult because the ball comes off the bat so much quicker here than it does in high school," Cleary says. "The speed of the game is much different, particularly at that spot in the infield because the reaction time is so much shorter. And then for a guy like Matt that hadn't played third base to speak of, for him to go over there, certainly there is an adjustment to be made. He did a really good job of it I thought.
"We knew it was a chance for him to be on the field every day, get his at-bats and learn how to play that position with the thought he was eventually going to move over and play short after Chris Peters left," Cleary continues. "I think there is great value in an infielder learning all the different spots in the infield. Every year, we drill all of our guys at all the infield spots for a number of reasons. One of them is to get the experience of balls coming at them at different angles which is helpful regardless of where you play."
As the 2011 season ended and preparations for 2012 began, Williams found himself back at "home" for summer ball with the Great Lakes Collegiate League's Cincinnati Steam. In attempt to prepare for the 2012 college season, Williams returned to shortstop, in a preview of what was to come when UC returned to the field in the spring. The start to the 2012 campaign wasn't exactly what Williams envisioned when he went 0-for-12 at the season opening Big 10/BIG EAST Challenge. Since the slow start, he has seemed to get back on track, batting at a .321 clip (9-for-28) in the two weekends since. It's that bounce back, along with a good off-season that has Cleary confident in what lies ahead for Williams.
"Matt didn't get off to a great start, but I think he is going to wind up having a great offensive year," he says. "He is stronger, he is more comfortable at the plate, and he has more bat speed than he did a year ago. Throughout the fall and preseason, he looked good at the plate; he just didn't get off to the hot start that you want. I think he has a chance to have a really good season for us."
It's a well known fact that shortstop is one of the toughest and most demanding positions to play in the game. But for Matt Williams, that's the spot he feels most at home and after a year away from the position, he is back at it and loving every minute of it.
"Shortstop can be tough, but I have just always played it coming up through little league and high school," he says. "I just felt comfortable and at home. It just feels right."