CONYERS - Al Williams stood tall at the front of the locker room, collecting the sweaty uniforms of his players. His team had just lost its last game of the season and the first-year coach was filled with conflicting emotions.
He was proud. He was disappointed. He seemed just a little angry.
Rockdale County had given top-ranked AAAA Miller Grove a battle before losing 73-59` in second round of the Georgia state high school playoffs. And the score was misleading because Williams' team had been within five points of tying the game well into the second half on Miller Grove's home court.
"Yes, I'm proud of our team. But we came here to win, not to just play tough,' Williams said emphatically. "And we didn't get it done, so I'm not happy right now."
His countenance belied those remarks because everything about his body language and interactions with the players said he was pleased with his team, their effort, their heart.
A native of Miami, Williams explained how much he likes the Rockdale County community and how thrilled he was to finally get a shot as a head coach of basketball at the high school level.
"This is my dream job and I am so grateful to be doing what I love," he smiled. "Basketball is my first love and I have always wanted to be a high school coach. My high school coach in Miami did so much for me personally and now I want to do the same for the kids here."
Williams is a large man who does not disguise his feelings. He is fun to be around in this setting and polite and well spoken, but he also transmits an authority that his players seem to respect and respond to in a positive way.
When asked about his team's final record, Williams said he wasn't sure and called over one of his players now on the baseball squad, Bernard Thompson, to give the details. The Bulldogs finished 20-9 and made the state playoffs for the first time since the early '80s.
"We had a little bit of an advantage this year because none of our opponents knew what to expect from us," Williams said. "They couldn't scout us because I was new."
Williams went on to say that his team came together during summer workouts. Since he had coached many of them in middle school before getting his opportunity at the high school level, the 34-year-old coach knew he had talent.
"One of the main things that contributed to our success," Williams continued, "was our commitment to good defense. Once I had them sold on good defense and the team concept, we were on our way. We had some individuals who sacrificed their statistics for the benefit of the team."
Next year, Williams acknowledged, will be different because he won't be new and there will be high expectations for a team with lots of returning players. Only one starter in the game against Miller Grove, outside shooter Julius Giles, was a senior.
"We have a good group coming back so I welcome the high expectations," Williams nodded. "We'll just take things a day at a time and focus on our short-term goals because that's how we will get to our long-term goals."
A young boy passed by and Williams stopped to reach out and pat him on the head and ask him how he was doing. The youngster just beamed and said he was working hard. He couldn't have been older than 11 or 12.
Living in Rockdale County and playing sports seems like a lot of fun these days for young boys. They have a lot to look forward to, like playing basketball for Al Williams.