Tustin track and field Coach Shad Vickers knows what it's like to be young and self-reliant. Maybe that's why he's so fond of Julius Williams, and the strides the senior has made.
Williams is one of five key returners on Tustin's second-ranked boys' team, but he also fills a valuable role in Vickers' personal life. Williams feels the same about his coach, who has promoted Williams' development since he dropped the baton in his first varsity relay.
"Julius has been with me for four years and he's kind of like my son," Vickers said. "I love him, I take care of him, I buy him lunch every day. Well, not every day, but in track season, every day."
When Vickers was 11, his father killed his mother during a domestic dispute. His father was ruled temporarily insane and imprisoned for three years. Vickers has only recently begun to restore their relationship.
Williams' youth hasn't been nearly as tragic, but he's still had to grow up in a single-parent household. His home is usually empty as his mother works long hours. Quite often, Vickers is the one he relies on most for advice.
"Off the track we're still very close," Williams said. "He's just like an older brother to me. Somebody to look up to, somebody to learn from. I learn from his mistakes, he learns how I am. I go to him about girl problems, friends, anything like that."
One of Vickers' first impressions was the look of failure Williams had on his face as a freshman after missing the handoff on the third leg of his first relay. Blinking back tears, Williams begged his coach to demote him from the varsity.
Vickers did send him down to the frosh-soph team for a couple of weeks, then brought him back up, where he's remained and progressed since.
Last season, Williams was named to The Times all-county 400-meter relay team, and Williams, along with DeShaun Foster, are back this season. Dante Maxey, a member of The Times all-county 1,600 relay team, also returns for his senior year.
Williams did something uncharacteristic before the season. He called together the team and expressed his goals as well as a few pet peeves, namely his opposition to missing practice.
"I know a lot of people look up to me and see what I'm doing and they take me as a model," Williams said. "You can't get better if you're not going to practice. Besides, if I miss practice I know I'm going to get yelled at."
Vickers saw this as a high-water mark in Williams' athletic and personal growth.
"That really got me excited about this track season," Vickers said. "Julius doesn't speak out very often, only when he's kidding around, but [when he did] that to me was special. You could just see him growing up."
On the track, Williams is expected to step up another level as well. Individually, Williams will concentrate on the 400 this season, instead of the 100 and 200 as in the past. Vickers believes the competition in the quarter-mile is lacking at the county and state level, offering him a better chance at a state berth.
"The 400 is kind of a rough event, nobody really likes doing it," Williams said. "But as far as I'm concerned it's just another event to me."
Williams appears relaxed going into this season and he has good reason to be. He earned a football scholarship to UCLA, where he'll probably play cornerback. Foster, Williams' friend and neighbor since junior high, also will play for the Bruins in the fall.
Vickers says running track will only make them faster.
"They lack speed," Vickers said. "If they want to be the dominant players they want to be, they have to run 10.4s [over 100 meters], instead of 10.6s."
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PRESEASON TOP 10
Mission Viejo: Overall strength earns it a double
Tustin: No throwers or vaulters
Esperanza: Produces good throwers, hurdlers
Brea Olinda Impressive early victories in 1998
El Toro: Best vaulters in the county
Santa Margarita: Despite losses, better than most
Edison: Deep in the sprints
Dana Hills: League favorite if not for Diablos
Woodbridge: Lacks depth, but has of experience
Katella: Beat Foothill to earn final top-10 spot