With the signing of Lima Central Catholic graduate De’jhon “Biggz”Johnson last week, University of Northwestern Ohio head basketball coach Caleb Williams said he feels this is another piece of the puzzle to returning the Racers to their winning ways in 2020-21.
Johnson is the latest major recruit to commit to UNOH and he joins big men Ottawa-Glandorf’s Ben Westrick and Cincinnati’s Hunter Bode, a transfer from the University of Cumberlands, this year and this has Williams optimistic that this trio will blend in with a team that returns a host of talent and it will translate into victories.
In his first three-years, Williams has posted a 35-56 overall record and he looking to turn things around this upcoming year with the players he has been able to assemble during the last three years.
“It’s been an interesting journey,” Williams said. “I was 25 when I was hired so I was blessed to get an early opportunity. You have to learn a lot. How to manage a staff. How to manage a program and it has been a learning experience but we are trending in the right direction. Our record might not show it but with the quality of wins we had in the second half of the season last year I do like the direction we are heading.”
Early injuries hampered the Racers’ efforts but the emergence of Nathan Lessing, who is from Fairlawn High School, Zach Montes out of Pickerington North High School and former Lima Senior standout Elijah Pughsley, to name a few, the Racers went 9-7 after opening the year with a 2-13 record.
While it has taken some time for Williams to develop winning on the court the same can be said about winning off the court in terms of recruiting. Again a learning process for the former New Bremen and Mount Vernon Nazarene University hoopster.
“I feel like I’m starting to come into myself as a coach and as a recruiter,” Williams said. “We have done a lot of hard work of educating local kids about who we are. I think the unique spot about us in the recruiting world is not only are you educating who we are at the University of Northwestern of Ohio and what we have to offer but we are also in the NAIA.”
Williams added that the NAIA is not as well known as the NCAA but he said through his efforts that potential players are getting a better concept of what that is and how competitive it can be as well as seeing their former teammates playing at UNOH and the success they have had in other sports.
As evident by the Westrick and Johnson signings, Williams is actively recruiting locally because he knows the wealth of talent that is prevalent in northwest Ohio. Williams is quite familiar with the area having played at New Bremen High School and Mount Vernon Nazarene University.
Williams points out that he is always going to go where the talent is but he also realizes their is plenty in UNOH’s own backyard.
“Obviously I know the area,” Williams said. “A lot of the guys who are coaching now were coaching when I played. I know the area in terms of the leagues and they are all pretty good. I know some of the differences between the small school leagues and the big school leagues.”
Williams also points out that because he was recruited he understands the wants and needs of the players looking for the right fit in a basketball program.
“I was a high school product in this area and UNOH had just come into the fold from an athletic standpoint and I am not that far from being recruited so if I was being recruited from UNOH I know what questions I would have had and what my concerns would have been or my parents’ concerns would have been and so that has really helped put into perspective our message.”
In the past three years, the number of Ohio players has continued to rise on the UNOH roster. Last year’s squad had eight players from the Buckeye state .
“I have recruited every single player on the team,” Williams added. “Last year we had one or two players that Coach (Chris) Adams had recruited and was involved with but all those guys are used to how we operate and expectations and practice and travel. I definitely feel like it is our group as a coaching staff.”
While he has secured two top local talents this year, Williams admits it was tough recruiting this year due to the pandemic. Building a personal in person relationship is one of the keys to recruiting and Williams said that was tough to do in these times but he quickly adapted.
“Recruiting at this time especially when it happened was really, really tough because especially for us at the NAIA level and a lot of other smaller colleges the timeline kind of gets pushed back,” Williams said. “The prospects are going to wait as long they can for the bigger schools to offer or fill their rosters so a lot of recruiting is done in the spring. It was really tough and a huge challenge.”
So with travel restricted Williams quickly became acquainted with Zoom to contact players and would often get his players involved on Zoom group chats to also give the recruit a chance to hear how the program is from their perspective. Williams also had players contact the recruits.
Recruiting videos were also sent out to recruits highlighting the campus and the program.
Williams said that if there is a silver lining to this is that he has learned new and different ways to contact recruits.
“I think as a staff we got better as recruiters because we had to be creative and open up doors to ideas and things we haven’t done before because we hadn’t had to but now we can add a Zoom call as one of our procedures.”
With most of the pieces in place, Williams said this will be a big year for us. The Racers return seven of their top scorers and a wealth of depth. The addition of Westrick and Bode helps fill a big void in the middle that hurt the Racers last year. Williams provides additional depth at the guard spot.
“With the amount of returners coming back and a good recruiting class and me in year four I am happy with where we are at,” Williams said. “A lot of our guys have played a lot of minutes now and this will be a big year for us.”