By Matthew Piltch '12
“They had a great season,” I told my friend as we sat on the couch after Williams men’s basketball’s 78-73 loss to UW Stevens Point in the NCAA Finals. “That doesn’t make it any better for them,” she replied. And she is probably right – the Ephs might feel as though they came up short. But I know that I, for one, don’t feel like they did; after getting to know Eph head coach Mike Maker, I am sure that he would agree. There is not a doubt in my mind that the Ephs should look back at this season forever with nothing but happiness.
Who am I to pass judgment on something like that? I am just a student that spends way too much time thinking about Williams basketball.
But I have watched every one of the team’s games in person, over the web, on live stats links from opposing schools' websites, and on Saturday, I watched on TV for the only time this season. I have given up going out with my friends on Fridays and Saturdays to do the stat book for the team at all but one home game and to write all but three articles for Williams Sports Information on the team’s games. I drove all the way to Salem (with an overnight stop in Philadelphia) with two friends to watch the team’s National Semifinal game against Guilford Friday, even though I knew I would have to turn around the same day because of prior commitments on Saturday. I think that it is safe to say that I have spent more time on Williams basketball than anyone that is not a player or coach on the team; along the way, I have gotten to know not just coach Maker, but also his assistants Shaun Morris and Ryan Wiersma, the players, the players’ parents, and an assortment of fans who just like Williams basketball. And it has been one heck of a ride.
When I first sat in coach Maker’s office before the season to discuss the preview for the team, I knew it at the very least be an interesting year. Coming off his first season, in which the Ephs went 17-9, Maker was excited about the team but had no interest in discussing tangible goals for the season. “Would I like for us to win another Little Three, win the NESCAC, and advance to the NCAAs? Yes,” said Maker that day. “But those aren’t our goals. Our goal is to represent this institution the way it deserves to be represented on and off the court. We want to put a product on the floor that everyone can be proud of at this school. One of the kids playing with a lot of enthusiasm, chemistry, playing hard, tough, and sharing the ball. Entertaining to watch, feisty, team first, chemistry is everything, share the ball. That is what we are trying to do. I don’t worry about the results – results… come from [playing] that way.”
I know that I personally was always thinking about ways the Ephs could improve throughout the season – as were the coaches – but after every game, coach Maker only wanted to talk about the good. “Focus on the positive, Matthew,” he told me after I asked about the Ephs’ seeming struggles against one of their early-season opponents. I tried to do that rest of the way, and I can only hope that coach noticed.
What became clear to me as the year went on was how much coach Maker truly cared for his players. When I interviewed him for stories, he would preface his remarks nearly every game with a comment about the team’s senior leadership, the team’s chemistry, or the team’s passion. I can think of several times when Maker was nearly overcome with emotion when asked about his players. The last time that I interviewed Maker this year was after the team’s regional championship win in Williamstown, and I had to promise him that I would only take a minute. “Make it quick, Matthew,” he said. “My players are waiting for me.” There are stories floating around about his in-locker-room persona, but I think the last statement of Maker’s pre-National-Final locker room speech, which was televised, really encapsulated the coach’s feelings about his team. “I am proud of you; I love you; now let’s play,” he said. Not a stereotypical basketball coach by any stretch of the imagination.
Maker’s team fed off of its coach – the players worked hard, were passionate, and gave it their all. The team was and is as tight-knit as any I have ever been around. They did win with chemistry, with team first play, and they made the school proud. There were some bumps and bruises along the way, without a doubt, but Maker was right when he said that results would come from playing that way – the team finished 30-2, won the Little Three, won the NESCAC, and was a National Finalist. They accomplished their goals, and they should be proud of their season.
I do not know what role I will have in the Williams basketball program next year; I am currently weighing some tough decisions about study abroad and staying on campus. I know that I will watch the group of 12 players that are returning in some capacity. And I know that I, as everyone involved should, will think of this season as nothing but a success. I will think that this team accomplished greatness in its purest form: that of a group of individuals truly coming together to epitomize, in Maker’s words, “togetherness,” “determination” and “passion.”