By Jeff Nations - email@example.com
Every time Ethan Williams swings a bat, connects with a ball and takes that first step out of the batter's box toward first base, in the back of his mind he remembers the Florida Atlantic game.
A first baseman this past spring at Middle Tennessee State University, Williams had a 2 for 3 day going in a nationally televised game against the Blue Raiders' Sun Belt Conference rivals at Reese Smith Jr. Field in Murfreesboro, Tenn.
Late in the contest, though, MTSU shortstop Ryan Ford had to rush a throw to Williams over at first base.
"A ground ball with hit in the six-hole and our shortstop went to make a backhanded play," said Williams, who is spending the summer playing for the Valley Baseball League's Woodstock River Bandits. "As soon as he got the ball he had to release it because it was a quick kid. It was one of those things if I didn't go into a stretch, we weren't going to get him. I ended up falling into a complete split. All my weight ended up going down onto my lead leg, my left leg, and I just tore [my hamstring].
"It was not too fun -- it was on CSS, one of those TV games. It wasn't too great being on national television, laying on the field with a blown hamstring."
Woodstock manager Phil Betterly happened to be watching that game.
"I saw it on TV," Betterly said. "It looked very bad. We've just been trying to keep him as fresh as we can, getting him off his legs. We monitor it all the time, making sure he's not in a position where it happens again."
Williams eventually made it back to the field toward the end of the season after a predictably long and arduous rehabilitation. Even now, he knows, his chances of a reoccurrence remain much higher than if he'd never suffered the initial injury. Williams remembers those first days of rehab, when he couldn't lift his leg higher than a 45-degree angle and he felt the scar tissue tearing during those first ginger strides.
"You're going at a snail's pace and your leg's buckling on you," Williams said. "It's really annoying when you feel it give out. In your heart and mind, nothing makes you madder than when you want to fix it and go at 100 percent and your body just will not let you no matter how hard you try.
"But at this point I am healthy. I can run at 100 percent, but I still have to be careful. Even running, I can still re-tear it. Whenever I hit a ball and start to go hard out of the box, if a kid fields it clean I'm under strict orders from the trainer -- if I'm going to be out, slow down."
The injury has done little to slow the rising senior from Erwin, Tenn. Heading into Monday's game at Covington, Williams leads the River Bandits in batting with a .352 average and ranks second in RBIs (25) for Woodstock. More importantly for Williams, though, is that he's starting to develop his ability to hit to the opposite field. That's a skill he hopes to show off next season at NAIA Faulkner, where Williams has transferred to play next season.
"I've enjoyed it, it's fun and it's good competition," Williams said of the VBL. "It's a great place to come and get your reps, work on things that you might have had holes in during the spring. One thing that I've really worked on that's actually helped me with my average is being able to take the ball and drive it the other way.
"In the spring I had kind of a hard time. I was known as a pull hitter, a dead-pull hitter. Defenses played a lot of pull shifts on me. Now I've worked to where I can drive the ball to the opposite field, so I'm kind of hoping it opens up a little for me."
Williams, who batted .327 with eight homers for MTSU in his shortened season last year, had already put in his transfer papers to move to Faulkner in Montgomery, Ala., before he learned of longtime Blue Raiders coach Steve Peterson's decision to retire after 25 years at the school. That didn't factor into his decision -- Williams made the switch to Faulkner for academics reasons. He isn't expecting a steep drop in competition playing for the War Eagles, who compete in the highly-regarded Southern States Athletic Conference.
"They're full of Division I kids, transferring from Division I to NAIA for various reasons," Williams said of Faulkner. "Our conference is very tough, a very high-caliber conference. To get to face teams like Lee [University] is probably not much different than playing Division I because their roster is full of Division I players."
Williams has surprised himself this summer with his performance at the plate.
"I was expecting come here and hit in the low .300s, have a good summer, but just being able to really consistently hit the ball like I am right now, it's nice, it's really nice," Williams said. "As a player, you can never really expect ... you can set those expectations, but to actually be achieving it is not something typical. Especially with a wood bat, you have to be a lot more consistent just barreling the ball up. With an aluminum bat, you can make bad swings and still get a base hit."
Betterly uses that most flattering of descriptions -- "he's a ballplayer" -- when talking about Williams.
"He's going to be a complete hitter when he goes down to Faulkner," Betterly said. "He's going to be able to hit with power and be able to hit the other way. I'm very excited for him."
Williams knows his chance of showing up on national TV are greatly diminished at the NAIA level, but then again maybe that's OK considering his recent bad experience in front of the cameras.
"I don't really think about it until I tweak it, and then once I tweak it and get that pain back into it, then it comes back into my mind," Williams said. "It can kind of hamper you because you're like, 'Well, I don't want to do too much because I don't want to tear it again.' It's just one of those things that as an athlete you just have to stuff it in a box and just store it, not think about it."