Don’t let the headline image fool you: it’s rare to ever see Cam Williams without a smile on his face.
The University of Calgary coach’s pearly whites were on full display during opening weekend of the Canadian Collegiate Baseball Conference (CCBC) season on April 2nd.
With his Dinos in Lethbridge to face Todd Hubka and the Prairie Baseball Academy Dawgs, Williams made his diamond debut as coach, despite having been in the role for two years.
The smile continued to shine, along with his pride, after the Dinos split the four-game weekend set, something he didn’t experience often as a player, often coming up empty-handed.
“We’ve taken a lot of losses down there at Lloyd Nolan Park, so it felt good,” he told Alberta Dugout Stories: The Podcast.
“They have always had a really strong program down there, so it’s a testament to how hard our guys have worked and how ready to go they were.”
It was a long-awaited return to the field for the Dinos and all CCBC teams after a two-year layoff because of the global COVID-19 pandemic.
For Williams, it was his first conference game action as a coach since taking the reigns two years ago.
“The energy was really high and the guys were just ready to go and were fired up,” he said. “Both dugouts were into it and it was a tonne of fun to be back out there.”
STARTED FROM THE BOTTOM
Being back in the Dinos’ dugout has been a homecoming of sorts for Williams, who first joined the team as a player for the 2014-2015 school year.
The kinesiology major became a steady influence on the team, and during his fourth season, became Calgary’s all-time hits leader by surpassing the previous record of 170 career hits by Colin Rintoul.
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In that final season, Williams played in 28 games, hitting .321 with three home runs and 24 runs batted in. He also went 1-3 with a 5.34 earned-run average in six starts.
However, the Dinos struggled to stay out of the CCBC basement during his tenure as a player.
He wanted to give back to the city’s baseball community and began coaching players with the Junior Dinos, who are now known as the Calgary Bucks.
Williams also kept tabs on his alma mater, being right next door, and tried to be around as much as he could.
POINT OF PRIDE
Opportunity came knocking for Williams when, after the pandemic hit, Geoff Freeborn stepped down as coach of the Dinos.
“I still had the athletic director’s contact information, so I reached out and asked if they thought it was worth me putting together a formal application,” he recalled. “So I did that, went through the interview process, and here we are.”
It seemed like a natural fit for the 5-foot-11, 190-pound infielder, who knew the program inside and out, and was familiar with many of the players.
“One thing that really helped me was, when I was a senior, I was the only senior,” Williams said.
“I was the oldest guy and we went through a coaching change mid-year, which was difficult, but I was also looked at to be that off-field leader.”
Interestingly, the same kind of situation had played out while he was a high school senior back in his hometown of Coquitlam, B.C., so becoming a mentor didn’t feel weird to him.
With his roots now in Calgary, Williams immediately went to work building his roadmap to what he hopes will be success.
“I have a lot of pride in this program,” he said.
“I’ve always really cared about it, obviously, as I think it has a tonne of potential to be an upper-echelon program in Canada.”
STEADY AND SOCIAL
Using his own experiences to guide him, Williams felt one of the first pillars he wanted to build was stability.
“In my six years, I played for four different head coaches,” he said.
“That’s crazy. It’s hard to build sustainability and hard to grow a program when every coach has a different philosophy.”
Williams doesn’t blame any of the past bench bosses for their approach, but he feels the high turnover impacted everything from on-field production to off-field activities like fundraising and apparel.
Now 25, he’s also keenly aware of how impactful social media can be, not just in awareness of the program, but in recruiting new players as well.
“We want to grow our brand on social media,” Williams said.
“Almost everyone is on there nowadays, especially high school guys, and if we look good to high school players, they are going to want to come here.”
That desire, in his eyes, will have ripple effects, as one strong recruiting class or season will lead to even more interest, and more talent.
Even though the pandemic didn’t allow for games to happen in his first season, Williams tried to take advantage of the situation.
He was able to get his feet wet in the coaching realm by developing his practice routines and build relationships with his players as they continued to train with the hope of one day returning to the field.
It also allowed the former Weyburn Beavers’ infielder/pitcher to do some recruiting, which is already paying dividends.
“We had a really good, solid recruiting class this year and I think next year’s will be even better,” Williams said. “I personally think we’re going to take the CCBC by storm and I’m excited for the next few years.”
He says this year’s version of the Dinos is “really close” with a good core of older players who have been resilient during the pandemic, while they have some young players who want to get the experience and learn from the veterans.
“I expect them to compete every game and I think we’re going to play in a lot of tight ball games,” Williams said.
“It’ll be stressful for me, but I think it will be good for us to learn how to win those tight games, because it’s one of the hardest things to learn and it’s hard to teach as practice reps don’t really attest to a 3-2 ballgame in the ninth – it’s hard to simulate that.”
FOREVER A DINO
Getting back onto the field has also allowed Williams’ players to get to know him and his coaching style in a different way.
He is still working on his own identity as a skipper, happy to be a work-in-progress.
“I think you should always be trying to learn and get to know your players because every group is going to be different,” Williams said.
“You have to be adjustable and I try to be as open as possible and have those open relationships with guys.”
He hopes that approach will get the most out of his players, as they also come to grips with the expectations he has of them, both on and off the field.
Williams has lived the life they are living, and the student is the master now.
“Preparation and time management is key on both sides: school and baseball,” he admits.
“The University of Calgary is, for the most part, a very difficult academic school and the CCBC is really good baseball, too.”
He says taking care of the mind and the body will help in both the on-field and classroom activities.
That discipline has got him to where he is – a smile on his face, ready for the next game and for the next steps in the Dinos’ development.
“I love this program and love this school, so I’m pretty lucky to be in the situation I’m in,” Williams said.
“I just want to see this program have a lot of success in this league and in this province.”