When you hike or climb a mountain, reaching the summit summons a rush of emotions. Euphoria, for sure. Wonder, given the spectacular vista before you. A sense of pride and accomplishment.
Mostly, though, relief. I’ve hiked to the top of a couple of mountains — nothing gargantuan — and reaching the top always brings relief. More than a bulk-sized can of Rolaids could provide.
The climb can be so taxing, so arduous and seemingly fraught with peril, that you’re just glad you can finally exhale.
In her 26th season as the head softball coach at West, Smith finally ascended to that elusive perch reserved for state champions. Back in late December, Williams — the head football coach at La Vega — experienced the same sense of solace, as his Pirates won the Class 4A Division I state title in his 26th year as head coach.
Meet Central Texas’ Prince and Princess of perseverance. These two are a testament to the spirit of stick-to-itiveness.
“It was an unbelievable feeling. You want to pinch yourself,” Williams said. “We’ve had so many good ball clubs over the years. This one just really gelled together and took on roles and played for each other. When it was all said and done, it was a relief.”
Smith observed the same sensation Thursday, when her Lady Trojans defeated Colorado City, 11-0, for the program’s first state title.
“It was awesome,” Smith said. “Maybe a sense of relief most of all. I was just so very proud of the kids. It was one of the proudest moments of my life.”
In more than 50 combined years as head coaches, Smith and Williams produced myriad successes. As he prepares for his 27th season at his alma mater La Vega, Williams has distanced himself as the winningest football coach in Central Texas, with 187 career victories to his credit. Smith, meanwhile, took over as the all-time softball wins leader in the entire state this season, climbing all the way to 602 career wins by season’s end.
Naturally, over the past couple of decades, La Vega’s football program fielded many talented, successful teams. Teams that Williams believed fully capable of seizing that UIL trophy in the end.
In 2007, the Pirates lost a thriller to longtime rival China Spring in the regional final. A year later, La Vega pushed all the way to the state title game before failing to prosper against Prosper, a one-touchdown loss Williams called “demoralizing.”
So when the Pirates finally busted the door down and claimed the prize for their own, Williams was able to appreciate it on a deeper level.
“It’s so very difficult,” he said. “You have to be lucky as well as good in a lot of cases. That’s why my hat is off to those perennial state teams who have won it four or five times, because it’s very hard to do. A lot of really great programs never win one.”
Smith had to wonder if her program was destined to wander through that wilderness. They were the almost queens, state runners-up three times prior in Smith’s tenure.
Some women are perpetual bridesmaids, with a closet full of hideous dresses to prove it. West’s softball players were state softball bridesmaids, with a collection of pretty — but not quite dazzling — silver medals in their jewelry boxes.
Smith said she always remembers those hard-to-swallow losses most of all. All the close calls and near-misses illustrates the microscopic margin between victory and defeat.
It’s thinner even than West’s softball budget when Smith started the program in 1991.
“That’s why it was a victory for the program, for West,” Smith said. “It’s crazy, how many car washes and fundraisers we did at the start, when we had absolutely no money. At least now there’s a budget for it. … We had a lot of close games, and really worked hard through the years. A call here or a misplayed ball there sometimes was the difference. It’s a game of inches, and it finally worked out in our favor.”
Almost as much as they wanted it for themselves, La Vega’s football players wanted to win it for Willie. Ditto for the West softball bunch. Infielder Sierra Reese said before the Lady Trojans’ title run that it “would mean the world” to be the team to give Guyla her long-awaited title.
But the coaches weren’t out to hog the glory for themselves. In their eyes, such moments were meant to be shared. West’s softball title wasn’t just a win for the 2016 Lady Trojans, but their ball-playing ancestors, too.
“It’s funny, my phone has just been blowing up,” Smith said. “Kids, well not even kids anymore, texting or calling and saying, ‘Finally got it’ or ‘Broke the door down.’ Social media has been awesome. You just look back and realize, ‘Wow, it’s taken so many people to get to this point.’ ”
Williams enjoyed taking the state championship trophy from UIL director Charles Breithaupt and wrapping his hands around it. But the La Vega coach gained the most pleasure from passing it over to everyone else.
He wanted to watch his son, Jamal, the team’s quarterback. And La Vega superintendent Dr. Sharon Shields. And his assistant coaches, men like George Kilgo and Don Hyde and LeRoy Coleman.
In a postgame interview, Williams even offered a shout-out to the coaches at his district rivals, like Lorena’s Ray Biles and China Spring’s Mark Bell. He was bringing a title back to Central Texas, and he wanted them to share in the joy.
“You’re just so happy for so many people,” Williams said. “It meant so much for me just to watch the expressions on their faces.”
Yeah, well, we’re all pretty happy for you, too.
So take a bow, Willie Williams. Soak up the applause, Guyla Smith.
You’ve earned it. The climb was rigorous, but the view is pretty great, isn’t it?