Photo by Brian Paglia / After a year back in his hometown, Las Vegas, senior Sean Williams returned and brought the winning at Union Grove back with him.
McDONOUGH — With the tap of a shoulder came a wave of reassurance.
Russ Atkins felt it the first day of school in his first period team sports class. The Union Grove boys basketball coach turned around, looked down and saw Sean Williams, the last remnant of the Wolverines’ state playoff team two years ago.
It’d been over a year since Atkins saw Williams before the diminuitive guard left Union Grove. His family moved back to Las Vegas, and with his move and the transfer of senior guard Charles Mann the Wolverines were left with a skeleton of the team Atkins expected to put on the court last season.
With them, Union Grove had been region runner-up.
Without them, the Wolverines went 1-20.
Atkins sighed in relief.
“I said, you don’t know how glad I am to see you,” Atkins said.
Amid the high-flying transfers at Eagle’s Landing came this under-the-radar return. Atkins said he expected Union Grove to be much improved over last season. He saw as much during summer league.
But there is no denying the impact Williams has had. Union Grove is 12-6 after a 55-51 victory over Forest Park on Tuesday. Williams is averaging a team-high 16.4 points per game going into Friday’s game at Region 4-AAAAA, Div. A and county rival Ola.
And as far as Williams is concerned, it’s almost like he never left.
“Same plays, same everything,” Williams said. “I remembered everything.”
It’s ironic perhaps that Union Grove got such a huge lift in such a small package.
Listed at 5-foot-7, Williams gives up several inches to his defender. That’s been his plight since the beginning. To overcome that took simple, stubborn work. On his agility, to get that extra step to get by defenders. On his defense, to prevent bigger guards from having too much time to exploit his size. On his shot, honed over hours and hours of practice, even on days Union Grove didn’t have it.
“I’ve been at a disadvantage from the get-go,” Williams said. “I’ve always been the shorter guy throughout, so I’ve just worked and worked and worked. And it started to not become a disadvantage.”
That work started in Las Vegas, where Williams was born. He lived there until the fifth grade when his family moved to McDonough.
Williams rose through the Union Grove ranks until he earned a starting spot on varsity as a sophomore. With a core of Williams, Mann, Jordan Nelson and Tracy Ham, the Wolverines went 14-11, reached the Region 3-AAAA championship game and made the state playoffs for just the second time in school history.
Then came Union Grove’s abrupt transition. Nelson and Ham graduated. Mann transferred to Class AAAAA powerhouse Milton, where he went on to win a state championship and sign with Georgia.
Williams moved back to Las Vegas when his mother’s employer wouldn’t allow her to work from home anymore. His junior season was spent in Vegas scoring almost 25 points per game for an average team.
“It was a different playing environment,” Williams said. “The pace and all that is completely different. ... They really don’t play defense in Vegas. It’s much harder to score here.”
But Williams has made it look easy. Case in point: he scored 35 points against Mundy’s mill last Friday, a game he played in tribute to the passing of his good friend’s mom.
“I was really focused and wanted to play my hardest for her,” Williams said. “I really used that as fuel to play the best I could.”
And Williams has tried to get the most out of his teammates, too. After all, he realized upon his return that he was the only player with any playoff experience. When Union Grove started to struggle, losing three of four games during the holidays, Williams spoke up, demanding the team work harder in practice.
That’s when Williams realized he didn’t have to do it alone. The marked improvement of juniors Grayson Fuller, Caleb Ham, J.P. Plummer and Jay Shorts, and the infusion of athletic talent from junior varsity has made Union Grove far more athletic than a year ago.
“Honestly I don’t think I made that big of a difference,” Williams said. “I honestly don’t know what happened last year, but we’re a good team. Some games when I’m not doing so well, somebody else will step up. It’s pretty even.”
Atkins acknowledged the team’s overall development.
But he’s glad Williams is back.
“It’s been huge,” Atkins said. “Somebody that can score, shoot, somebody who can handle the ball in pressure situations. Just tremendous.”