Back in line with expectations

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James Wang is one of two All-Region first-team selections that Williams will bring to Salem. 
Williams athletics photo

By Evans Clinchy

If you know anything about Williams athletics, you know that championships are a way of life for an Eph.

Whether it's soccer, tennis, track, cross country, crew, or whatever else, Williamstown is title town in D-III athletics. Why should hoops be any different?

The answer is that it's not. Basketball is yet another sport in which Williams cleans up -- the men's team has appeared in the NCAA Tournament 11 times since the NESCAC began allowing teams to go to the NCAAs, made the Final Four five times, and won a national championship in 2003.

With a program like this one, winning is expected. Even with a new coach like Mike Maker.

"Do I feel it? Sometimes, yeah," Maker said this week. "I'm human. Do I look up sometimes and see the banners? Yes, of course I do. We embrace the tradition here. We don't shy away from it. But I don't coach because we're trying to win championships. I coach to try to have an influence on young people."

This is only Maker's second season at Williams -- he took over in 2008 for Dave Paulsen, the two-time NABC Coach of the Year who left Williams to make the jump to D-I Bucknell two seasons ago. In eight years at Williams, Paulsen won the NESCAC three times and made four appearances at NCAA's. Obviously, the expectations were high at Williams when Maker arrived, but the coach took it in stride.

"I put more pressure on myself than the place can put on me," Maker said. "I'm not naive. I do realize that having a successful basketball  program here is important to a lot of people. But I think that what the people at Williams really want is a program that they can be proud of."

They'd be prouder, no doubt, if Maker brought up a national championship this weekend. And while this team remains focused on the ultimate goal, they also have a unique perspective. In a way it's about the means, not the ends.

"Personally for me as a coach there's no validation or anything like that because of the end result," Maker said. "For me, it's about the journey and about being around the young men that I'm fortunate to be around on a daily basis."

It sounds so counterintuitive. So unorthodox. So anti-coachspeak. But Maker isn't talking about winning games or winning championships -- he's talking about developing students into well-rounded men. And if a championship happens to grow out of that, then so be it.

To get that title, the Ephs would have to get through a Guilford team making its second consecutive trip to Salem, followed by either Randolph-Macon or Stevens Point in the final. It's a tall order -- especially considering that Williams already lost once this season at Macon, a 79-74 decision at Macon on Dec. 30 that still stands today as the only loss this season for the 29-1 Ephs.

Just Williams' luck -- three months later, Randolph-Macon is back, ready to fight for a championship. But is Maker afraid of the Yellow Jackets that stung him back in December? Of course not.

"I'm really happy for Nathan," Maker said. "Our program had an enjoyable experience down at their tournament. Like us, they have a rich basketball tradition at Randolph-Macon. And we're happy for them. That was a highly competitive, great game we played down at Macon. I think that if you would have told me back in December that we'd be making the journey to Salem with a possibility of meeting for all the marbles, we'd certainly take it. I'd have said, 'Where do I sign?' No doubt about it."

Now they've got their shot. And while Maker has been humble and unassuming all year long, he's now got that team close to national glory again. It's been seven years since Williams brought home a championship banner in basketball, and it could be time for the Ephs to do it again.

"I think our players' confidence level has grown with each game," Maker said. "I think winning a NESCAC championship on our home floor over a very good Middlebury team gave us a lot of confidence, and being able to survive our region and survive our section did, too. I think with each game you win in the NCAA Tournament, your team gains confidence from that. They're just excited to have an opportunity to represent this great place in the Final Four."

For Williams, it's the fifth such opportunity. But for Maker and this group of kids, it's the first. They'll be sure to make the most of it.