Steven Williams was 16.
He was still filling out his Deerfield-Windsor jersey then, just old enough to drive, when he looked at the barrel of his bat and stepped up to the plate, his team down big in the state championship series.
He gripped tight, in the heart of all the intensity of the GISA AAA state tournament finals.
This was a moment he wouldn’t forget.
He could’ve thought the whole world was watching.
It wasn’t. Cars cruised by on the neighborhood street on the other side of the outfield fence. Someone around might’ve been watering their lawn in the spring Georgia sun.
But between the foul lines and in front of the bleachers there at the school, this was the season’s pinnacle — a showdown with Valwood School for the private school state title — and this was when Williams rocketed a three-run homer to deep right in the late innings, blasting his shot off the foul pole to tie the game and lead Deerfield-Windor’s roaring comeback.
“That doesn’t even really compare,” Williams shakes his head and smiles now.
Right. There were more fans in the stands, an electricity in the air and ESPN cameras rolling when he hit his walk-off home run to beat Georgia Tech in the NCAA Tournament’s Atlanta Regional last Saturday. He was only 180 miles or so from Deerfield-Windsor in Albany, but it’s felt like a long way from then to now for Williams.
Still, Auburn’s sophomore has built a history of coming up clutch.
“I’ve been calling him Postseason Steve the last couple of days,” shortstop Will Holland teased him as the two joked around in the Auburn dugout this week, getting set for this weekend’s Super Regional in North Carolina.
Auburn beat Georgia Tech in two games on its way to winning that Atlanta regional, with Williams’ bat coming up big in both wins. Auburn trailed 5-2 in the bottom of the ninth with two outs down when Williams turned on a breaking ball and rocketed a shot out to deep right and into Auburn legend, winning Auburn the game 6-5.
The next night in the regional finals, after Rankin Woley’s RBI single scored Holland to break a scoreless tie in the sixth inning, Williams blasted a two-run RBI double out to left, pushing Woley and Edouard Julien home to cap a three-run rally that proved to be the difference in the 4-1 regional final clincher.
The day before all that, Williams was 4-for-5 with five RBI’s and two runs scored in a 16-7 win over Coastal Carolina to open the regional.
“That’s just him. That’s how he is,” Julien said, looking over to Williams in that dugout. “If you’re a hitter, you do big things in the playoffs.”
Williams has filled out his uniform now. He sat in his Auburn gear after a practice Wednesday at Plainsman Park, just before the team headed off for its Super Regional starting Saturday against host North Carolina in Chapel Hill, N.C.
His muscles are a bit bigger, and he probably has a little more facial hair now, joking around with the MLB Draft picks he has for teammates on one of the last 16 teams standing the NCAA Tournament.
But he’s shown that same ability to make big things happen in those big moments all along.
“Those moments do not bother him,” said his old high school coach Jonathan Davis, speaking over the phone Thursday. “I think that’s when he’s his calmest and when his clarity of thought is at its best, and he’s able to just execute.”
Davis described that homer in the 2015 state finals just like Williams did. Deerfield-Windsor trailed 11-6 in the fifth inning before two runs came across then Williams hit his three-run homer to tie it, on his team’s way to winning 17-12 in Game 1 of the Georgia Independent Schools Association’s Class AAA state title series.
Deerfield-Windsor beat Valwood in Game 2 the next day to take the series.
Williams was a sophomore at Deerfield-Windsor then, like he’s a sophomore at Auburn now.
“He’s very even-keel and level-headed, which I think in baseball serves you very well,” Davis said.
“I think that kind of demeanor, when you can step up to the plate in those situations and your heart rate is a normal heart rate when everyone else’s in the building is going crazy — I think that he’s able to laser focus and then that’s when his talent has really come through,” Davis added.
‘Laser focus’ is about right. Last Saturday, Williams faced an 0-2 count with two outs down when fired his homer out over the fence.
“It got two strikes and it got really loud,” Williams said, remembering the atmosphere at Russ Chandler Stadium in Atlanta, split between supporters for host Georgia Tech and nearby Auburn, with all the fanfare of the postseason hanging in the air.
“So I was like, ‘Alright, I’ve got to lock in,’” Williams said, making it sound easy.
Williams came up big for Auburn in the regional round last year, too. He hit another three-run homer for Auburn as a freshman in its 2018 regional-round opener against Northeastern in Raleigh, N.C.
“In baseball, it has to click at some point,” Williams went on, after talking a bit about his high school heroics, some of his struggles this season and on to his mindset entering this postseason. “I consider myself a good hitter and I knew that at some point it would come around.
“I really just tried to just simplify things and have a fresh mind and just go into postseason and try to just win for the team and just forget all individual things — all individual stats and stuff like that. Just do my best for the team — and it’s worked out so far.”
Back at Deerfield-Windsor, Davis has hung up his cleats, and moved on from coaching into a role as a principal at the school. Deerfield-Windsor won the state title in 2015 and 2016, and made it to the state finals in Williams’ senior year in 2017.
Deerfield-Windsor had a talented lineup through that run. Williams batted second. Auburn tight end John Samuel Shenker batted third.
Davis said Deerfield-Windsor sends out social media updates keeping up with how Williams is doing on the big stage at Auburn. He was on the team’s media guide recently, which sits on a table in the foyer of the school, he said. Anyone walking in and waiting for an appointment or something will see him.
“We’re definitely proud of what he’s done and how he’s represented his family and our school,” Davis said. “It’s not that you take these things for granted, but you just kind of knew years ago that this is what the future held for him.”
Williams makes modest jokes now about his high school days. A three-run homer in front of the bleachers there at the school wasn’t quite like a walk-off winner in the NCAA Tournament, he says. Holland pokes at him walking by, comparing public school baseball and private school baseball in Georgia.
But Williams remembers every detail, and remembers every bit of where he’s from.
With a few more swings of the bat, he’s got more of those memories left to make.