Carroll College’s young track and field program had a momentous day without even competing.
Columbia Falls distance runner Derrick Williams, one of the top recruits in the state, put pen to paper at the Carroll College P.E. Center at noon Tuesday and will join the Saints this fall.
“It was a very good day for us,” Carroll track and cross country coach Matt Morris said.
The senior is a three-time Class A state champion — winning the 800 and 1,600 championships last spring, and the cross country crown last fall — and capped his junior year with the fastest 800 time in the state and the third-fastest mark in the 1,600 among all classifications.
Williams’ personal bests — all established last year — are 1 minute, 55.17 seconds in the 800, 4:19.50 in the 1,600 and 9:49.69 in the 3,200. His 3,200 time ranked seventh in the state last spring.
It wasn’t just the fast times that caught Morris’ attention during the nearly year-long recruiting journey that began last May.
“Obviously, Derrick is very talented and he has so much range — he can be a very competitive in the 400 all the way up to the 3,200and in cross country. That, along with his potential, give him a lot of options to be successful as a runner,” Morris said. “But he’s also a very good student and he’s just such a great kid.
“I really think at this level, when you’re recruiting kids you hope will be program-changers, it’s really about the personalities. We do a lot of looking into what kind of people they are, what kind of person they want to be — the things that don’t show up on a questionnaire. That’s where Derrick is most impressive.”
On Tuesday, both Williams and Morris were beaming during a signing ceremony with the runner’s parents and Carroll athletic director Bruce Parker also in attendance. He joins a two-year old Saints track and field program that’s on the rise after 11 athletes earned NAIA All-American honors during the indoor season.
“Going to college is about getting a good education first of all, and running is the cherry on top,” Williams said. “I came down and visited after cross country state and I really meshed with coach Morris. … I knew as soon as I visited that this is the place I could see myself going to college. But at the same time, I wanted to check out my other options to make sure I wasn’t making the decision too early.”
Williams said he narrowed his college choices down to NCAA Division I Montana and Carroll, among many other suitors, before deciding the Saints offered him the best fit. He plans on studying pre-med and said academics played a key role in his decision to attend college in Helena.
Medicine has been an interest of his for a long time.
“The other day, my mom showed me something from fourth grade, a bucket list of 50 things you want to do before you die, and being a doctor was on that list,” said Williams, who maintains a 4.0 grade-point average. “So I think I have known since fourth grade that’s something I have wanted to pursue.”
While his interest in medicine began at an early age, distance running wasn’t something he pursued until he stumbled into it as a freshman at Columbia Falls High. He grew up playing soccer, and played both soccer and basketball as a freshman before joining the track and field team that spring.
“I thought I was a sprinter and a jumper, so I triple jumped and ran the 200, 400 and 4x400,” Williams said. “One day, one of my coaches said I needed to run an 800 in this JV meet as a workout. I ended up winning the race with like a 2:08 or something like that, so that’s where it all started. … I fell in love with (distance running) instantly.”
He’s been on a roll ever since that first 800.
Williams was fifth at state cross country as a sophomore — helping the school win its first team championship — then finished second as a junior before winning as a senior to become the school’s first individual state champion.
As a sophomore in track and field, he was runner-up at the state meet in the 800 (1:58.79) and 1,600 (4:31.76), before winning those to events and finishing second in the 3,200 last year. He also ran the 400 and sprinted a leg for the state champion 4x400 relay team last spring.
“It was tough to run all five events, but if the schedule is the same this year as it was last year, I want to try it again,” said Williams, whose best in the 1,600 is less than one tenth of a second short of the Class A state record (4:19.43).
He opened this season with a bang last Saturday with a victory in the 3,200 at the Columbia Falls Invitational in 9:53.22, more than minute ahead of his nearest competitor and well under the Class A state qualifying time of 10:15.
One he arrives at Carroll, Williams said he’ll be happy to run whatever event suits him best. Mostly, he’s excited to have training partners. At Carroll, he’ll have plenty athletes to help push him to faster times.
“In Columbia Falls, I do a lot of training by myself, actually nearly all of my training by myself,” he said. “I am really stoked to have a whole team to train with. The guys here are great. I can’t wait.”
Morris, who was wearing a big smile all afternoon — even four hours later at a Helena High vs. Great Falls High dual meet — said Williams is the ideal recruit.
“Regardless of how fast he is, he’s going to make a big impact on our program. I have no doubt, whatever he decides to do, he’ll be successful,” Morris said. “But how fast he is will only make an impact for four or five years. All the other stuff he brings to this team will make an impact for a much longer amount of time. … This is a very big deal for us. No question.”