Jam Williams smiles remembering last year’s crowd reaction at M.L. “Tigue” Moore Field, whenever he reached base or came on in a pinch-running situation.
“They’d all be going, ‘Go Jam, go Jam,’ ” he said. “I loved it, loved every bit of it.”
That was as a true freshman, when the Farmerville native was the “designated runner” for Louisiana-Lafayette’s baseball squad. The moniker and the crowd reaction fit, as Williams was unquestionably the Ragin’ Cajuns’ on-base speedster.
But coach Tony Robichaux saw a lot more in the rangy 6-foot-3 Williams. He resisted the urge to place him at a junior college to gain everyday-player experience following last year’s 42-23 season. That decision now appears to be paying dividends one week before the start of a highly anticipated season.
“Jam has gotten so much better,” Robichaux said. “We were hoping that it would pay off, the time and effort he put in and that we put in with him. We asked him what he wanted to do, and he wanted to stay and keep getting better at this level.”
In an intrasquad game last Thursday, Williams had a two-run homer, robbed an opposing player of extra bases with a catch against the wall, threw out one runner at the plate and turned a double play from left field.
“Last year, I was just missing plays like that in the gaps,” Williams said. “The ball was spinning off my glove. The game was a little fast for me, but coach Robe told me to keep chasing them and trust my ability and trust the process.”
Williams had seven starts last year but only 18 at-bats, and he struck out 13 times. But he was 5-for-6 on stolen base attempts, and twice he scored game-tying or game-winning runs from second base on late-game hits.
“If a guy like that starts hitting the ball off the wall and out of the ballpark, that’s huge for us,” Robichaux said. “That’s a huge weapon because he’s such an explosive player.”
Williams was better known for football exploits at Union Parish High, where he played quarterback and led his team to a 2013 state title. He threw for 18 touchdowns and 977 yards and rushed for 1,471 yards and 18 scores as a senior, and Robichaux saw the potential in all that athletic ability.
“When we first got him, we thought he was a moldable piece of clay,” said Robichaux, whose team opens the regular season Feb. 19 in a three-game series against Sam Houston State. “He has a big-league-looking body and a lot of tools, but all those tools were raw. We thought if he’d be willing to put in the time and effort, he could turn that into good baseball skills. And the one thing he’s done, he’s put in an enormous amount of work.”
That work has Williams’ name now penciled in as part of what will likely be an interchangeable Cajun outfield, joining regulars Kyle Clement, Joe Robbins, Brian Mills and Derek Herrington. All five, along with newcomers Ishmael Edwards and Johnny Rizer, figure to see extensive time.
“This year especially, we’re not going to throw nine guys out there and say OK, let’s roll it up to June,” Robichaux said. “There’s going to be a lot of moving parts, a lot of guys in and out of the lineup.”
Speaking of his increased role, Williams said: “It feels good. I’m excited, I’m pumped. ... I’ve always been able to run a little bit, so I loved that. I love speed. But this year I’m just going to come out every day and bring energy, do everything I can and control what I can control.”
Playing under control, Robichaux said, is the best part of Williams as compared to one year ago.
“He’s starting to get away from being raw,” he said, “and that’s a really good thing for us to see. He’s starting to handle the plate; his defense has gotten so much better; and his overall baseball skills have gotten so much better. And he’s getting better quick.”