The scene — an athlete flanked by broad-smiling friends and family members, green-shirted coaches and Flagler Palm Coast Athletics Director Steve DeAugustino — was eminently familiar. So was the table set up in front of the trophy case and the thrice-folded letter of intent. The circumstances surrounding Lorenza Williams’ signing to play baseball at Brewton-Parker College, on the other hand, were anything but routine.
When Williams, a 2013 FPC graduate, suits up for the Barons next year, he’ll be nearly two years removed from his last live game at-bat.
‘Baseball will always be there’
The netted cage in Nik Bitner’s backyard is 25-feet long, with an L-screen for batting practice. At any time, the ground inside is dotted with baseballs and a couple BBCOR (high-school legal) bats. About five months ago, Williams moved in with Bitner, a friend of 12 years who he calls his “little brother.” Since the pair worked out on a daily basis, a living arrangement just made sense.
“We’d train, train, train, then crash, and it just got to a point where I ended up staying over there,” Williams said.
Sometimes, the baseball-specific plans are made the night before, and sometimes, they’re impromptu. Every other day, Bitner and Williams drive to the Espanola Fairgrounds to long toss; back at home, they hit off the tee. Williams, 20, and Bitner, 16, both have the same goal in mind — keeping their grip on baseball. While Williams sought to remain sharp for a chance to play in college, Bitner, a rising junior at FPC, missed most of last season with a torn hip flexor.
“You could always see that he had that intensity in his eyes,” Bitner said. “He wanted to play beyond high school. And he never lost that or got discouraged; he’s not a person to stay down.”
During his days in a Bulldogs uniform, Williams did a little bit of everything. He played second base, shortstop, third base and outfield, depending on the team’s needs.
“And he was awesome at all those positions,” FPC coach Jordan Butler said.
For whatever reason, said Butler, Williams just didn’t get the offers. There weren’t any red flags concerning his play or attitude — it was just a fluke. One of Williams’ key attributes is his motor, which didn’t sputter to a stop when he graduated.
“A lot of kids feel sorry for themselves, and they just hang ‘em up,” Butler said. “He’s been an inspiration for a couple kids that were in that class — players who didn’t go anywhere that are now trying to catch on.”
Williams actually caught the attention of Brewton-Parker, a small NAIA school in Mount Vernon, Georgia, during his senior year, but decided the timing wasn’t right.
“Talking with my grandma, she told me, ‘Education comes first,’” Williams recalled. “‘Baseball will always be there.’” Besides, he wanted to focus on a different type of training altogether.
A career-minded injury?
Rain fell steadily before the first pitch, but slick conditions were the last thing on Williams’ mind. He smacked a grounder to shortstop in his first at-bat of a summer 2012 tournament game with the Central Florida Greenjackets and bolted down the first-base line to beat it out. The bag was wet, and when Williams touched it, he slipped into the splits, tearing his right hamstring.
Reality set in quickly. Williams thought he’d miss his senior campaign at FPC, and with it the opportunity to market his talents to college coaches. But when he started rehabbing with FPC athletic trainer Grace Iorio during the fall of his senior year, one unlucky stride turned into a step toward a potential career in athletic training.
Off the bat, Iorio, who was herself new to FPC, noticed Williams’ dedication to his own rehab process, which she said was on par with college athletes.
“At the high-school level, athletes don’t usually follow up on injuries like he did on his own,” Iorio said. “He did every exercise, trying to get better and trying to get back on the field. He showed a little more determination than the average high school athlete.”
The next step came last winter, when Williams began his observation hours with FPC’s training staff. Since then, he’s learned the ropes — the tape wraps and bracings — at wrestling meets, soccer games, track events, and of course, baseball games. His job is to assist the trainer with “everything she needs help with.” At this point, it’s all about learning how to interact with athletes and coaches, Iorio said. It’s “more watching than doing.”
Right now, Williams is taking his core classes at Daytona State College, courses like Human and Sports Nutrition that will prepare him for a major in sports medicine at Brewton-Parker.
‘He didn’t just disappear’
After Williams’ noon signing ceremony, he loitered to pose for pictures with his mom, Salena Belle, and his little cousin Marcel Williams, a starting wide receiver on the Bulldogs football team. What stood out to DeAugustino, though, was Williams’ dedication to the larger FPC family.
“In the meantime, he didn’t just disappear from Flagler Palm Coast High School and go off and do something else,” DeAugustino said. “His commitment to the training program, the athletes, the baseball players is a great tribute to him.”
During the first week of preseason football practice in August, that dedication was put to the test. Williams worked practice with the training staff from 8 a.m until noon each day, then scurried off to his job as a pool attendant in the Hammock.
“He definitely has the work ethic,” Iorio said. “He’s not fazed by it.”
Williams will head up to Montgomery County, Georgia in time for the Spring 2015 semester. Mount Vernon recorded a population of 2,082 at the 2000 census, and Brewton-Parker’s enrollment is just over 1,100 students. Palm Coast, by comparison, is a booming metropolis.
“It’s a very small school, and from what I’ve seen so far, it’ll be a good program and a good fit for me,” Williams said. “To get away from the city, I think it’ll be a good atmosphere.”
No matter how many cuts Williams took in his friend’s homespun batting cage, how many times he and Bitner stretched beyond 120 feet and hurled the white pill on a line, the opportunity to play college baseball wasn’t a gimme. And for Williams, that reality was a mental challenge.
“Sometimes I would think that maybe they wouldn’t give me another chance, another opportunity,” he said. “I doubted myself because I worked so hard, and it might still not turn out the way I wanted it to be. There was some doubt about that.”
Faced with that uncertainty, Williams turned to his family, his teammates, the athletics community at FPC, and with his signature on Friday, it became official. He did it.
“I have a big heart for the people here,” Williams said.