After 17 years of coaching baseball, Ed Williams could accept some well-earned credit for guiding Greenbrier to the brink of a state championship before he retires up that ladder to assistant principal.
But Williams knows better. His coaching career will end here, but what he accomplished started long before him and will continue long after. The reason Greenbrier is facing Marist in the championship series extends well beyond his spot in the third-base coach's box.
"It starts with our recreation department and little league program," Williams said. "It's the opportunities that are created for these kids growing up in this community. They develop those fundamentals at a young age."
The short situation assessment is that Greenbrier is playing for its first Class AAAA state baseball championship. The longer view is, Columbia County is contending for its 16th state title in 33 years.
At a rate of almost one championship every other year in the era of integrated public schools, that stat goes a long way to establishing this corner of the Augusta area as the baseball capital of Georgia.
"Evans and Columbia County as a whole have always been a baseball community," said Terry Holder, who coached eight state championship teams at Evans and Greenbrier before handing the reins to Williams in 2000. "People here just love baseball and support it."
Columbia County's baseball championship pedigree dates back well before Greenbrier even opened. It goes back more than three decades. The wave began at Harlem (seven state titles from 1974-86), swept through Evans (five titles from 1988-94) and eventually expanded to Greenbrier (vying for fourth title since 1997).
The high school successes only sit at the top of the pile. Since 1991, Columbia County counts 11 Dixie League World Series titles for a recreational system that keeps feeding the baseball machine. In fact, three of the Wolfpack's top stars Nolan Belcher, Brandon Cumpton and Michael Hester played on the county's last Dixie World Series winner in 2003.
"It started years ago with Jimmie Lewis at Harlem and Terry Holder at Evans and funneled down to the youth teams," said Randy Haygood, the athletics supervisor for Columbia County's parks and recreation department. "Once they see those teams do well at the high school level, it creates that interest in baseball."
Like Williams, both Lewis and Holder credit the recreation program for helping foster their coaching successes.
Lewis who played for the county's first state semifinal team in 1969 and assisted Tommy Price's second state championship team at Harlem in 1978 counts five state titles and two Dixie championships on his coaching resume.
"Kids start playing from the time they can walk," Lewis said of the county's rec program.
Holder's son, Rodney, was part of three championship teams at Evans and will continue the stream of continuity at Greenbrier next year when he takes over for Williams. Rodney agrees that there is no real secret to Columbia County's success.
"It's just a commitment from the county," he said. "You go down to Patriots Park tonight and you're going to see games in every direction and hundreds and hundreds of kids. That feeder system has really been the key since Tommy Price was at Harlem in the '70s."
It's not at all surprising that Ed Williams has a bit of both Lewis' and Holder's influence in him. Williams played for Terry Holder at Evans and accepted his first assistant's job under Lewis at Harlem before rejoining Holder's staff. He's called "old school" the way he runs a program so in sync with his predecessors as if there was any other way in Columbia County.
"If I'm an assistant coach and win three state championships under Terry, I ain't going to change a thing," Lewis said of the style Williams adopted. "Ed's a throwback to our era."
Williams, 41, will hang up his coaching cap after 17 years this weekend and put on a necktie as assistant principal next year. It wasn't an easy decision as illustrated by the way Terry Holder came out of retirement after six years fishing to re-energize the program at Thomson.
"The tough part about it is leaving something so positive," Williams said. "But I feel like it's an opportunity. Rather than coaching 40 kids in a baseball program it gives me a chance to influence a little over 2,000 kids."
The Columbia County schools have forged tough rivalries on the diamonds over the years. They can't stand losing to each other, but that competition has elevated them all.
"I'd have way over 600 wins if I didn't play Evans, Greenbrier and Lakeside all the time," Lewis said. "But that's what we need to do to get better. I think we make each other better as coaches, players and teams."
This year, Greenbrier is the team playing for the championship. But the Wolfpack are playing for the rest of the county as well. That's why you might see Holder and Lewis in the bleachers watching the extension of everything they've helped build.
"If anybody is a true Columbia County baseball supporter, they'll feel the same way," said Terry Holder of his support for Greenbrier.
Whatever happens today and Saturday, Williams will hand the program he took over from one Holder to another. He'll leave it in as good a shape as he found it. All Rodney Holder will have to do is what his father and Lewis and Williams and others have all been doing for decades.
"Try to drive the boat and keep it from hitting the bank," Lewis calls it.
In a way, that's what Columbia County baseball is all about.
Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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