Colleen Williams a winner, on field and off
You don't win national championships at the University of Dayton. You don't change the world with a dollar, either.
But you'll have to forgive one of the nation's best college soccer players if she thinks such sentiments make for lousy reasons not to try.
That one player can make a difference in sports is hardly a revelation. The confines of a field, the limits of a clock, the structure provided by rules -- everything about the games we play makes the world they inhabit small enough for one person's will, when combined with the necessary skills, to alter the course of games or rewrite a team's history.
Colleen Williams, all 5-foot-5 of her, lives up to that. A singular talent, she changed the Dayton soccer program, not without some help, certainly, and perhaps not permanently, but undeniably. Not yet done with a senior season in which she has 12 goals and 11 assists in 13 games for a team near the top of the Atlantic 10 table, she's the school's all-time leader in goals and assists, an All-American and a contender for this season's Hermann Trophy as the nation's best college player. Dayton made the NCAA tournament five times in 25 seasons before she arrived on campus. This year, the Flyers are trying to make their fourth consecutive appearance with her in the lineup.
"We had a good program before she got here, but she's made it a lot better," said longtime Dayton coach Mike Tucker. "I think it's as much her attitude as anything."
And yet for all of that, Williams takes just as much satisfaction off the field in a three-year-old program of her own design that is grounded in the idea that it doesn't require a superstar or a superhuman effort to make a difference. It takes only a human effort from many people. It may take only a dollar.
Willy's Wish, as the program is known, asks fans attending Dayton games to donate one dollar to support a person or family in need for the holiday season. It is a way to make a small difference and offer a reminder of the exponential potential that resides in the hands of the many.
One person can move mountains on a soccer field. It doesn't work that way in the real world.
"It's not a $20,000 or $50,000 fundraiser that we're doing," Williams said. "Each year, we've raised about $1,000. But the cool thing about it, I think, is we probably had 800 people donate [each year]. The purpose of the fundraiser is sort of just to give a dollar, a really small donation, and to see how many people can come up with a dollar."
Big aspirations on a small scale explain a lot about Williams, a New Jersey native who looked at higher-profile programs than Dayton as a recruit but fell for the community when she visited.
In a meeting on the first day of her freshman year, Williams and her teammates were asked to come up with goals for the season. Returning players mentioned winning a conference championship and getting back to the NCAA tournament for the first time in five years. Without hesitation and with all the bravado expected of someone who grew up in the middle of arguments among family members whose loyalties were split between New York and Philadelphia sports teams, Williams spoke up and said if they weren't playing to win a national championship, they shouldn't be playing at all.
Mind you, Dayton had won a total of three NCAA tournament games up to that time.
Duke All-American Kaitlyn Kerr grew up playing club soccer with Williams, and the two remain the closest of friends. Kerr considers the Williams family her own, and calls Williams the "loyalist friend you could have."
She also once had her nose broken when she got in Williams' way on the training ground.
"She's about as competitive a kid as you will ever see," Tucker said. "She's just going to battle for every inch, everything. Winning is her sole goal out on the field, and she'll battle from the start to the finish to do that. That's the first thing that catches your eye."
Williams is a playmaker by nature, a classic midfielder with a deft touch on the ball and the vision to see the runs teammates are about to make, at times seemingly before those teammates know they will make them. She nonetheless spends most of her time at Dayton playing forward because she's too good a finisher to sacrifice. But no matter the position, she is the conductor, the rest of the world receding from the rectangle of grass she controls.
"My grandma always said there's no high like playing a sport, which I think is a pretty cool phrase because the adrenaline rush that I get from playing soccer is far more than anything I think I could do with anything else," Williams said. "I think any real athlete would tell you that there's something when you step on the pitch, the adrenaline rush is unreal. That's one thing about playing [at Dayton's Baujan Field] that's crazy, because a Friday night will have 1,500 fans, and they're all cheering your name and you're playing what you love. It's a pretty cool feeling."
That relationship remains a two-way street for Williams.
Krystal Byrne is among those fans, even when she is unable to be with the Baujan faithful because of the cancer she has battled for eight years. As Tom Archdeacon described in the Dayton Daily News, Byrne once hoped to be a member of the Flyers soccer program before cancer scuttled such plans. Williams picked out a local family for the first year of Willy's Wish, a single mom going back to school with three children. Last year she worked with an area hospital to help a family with a daughter suffering from Type 1 diabetes. But when Tucker read the team an email from Byrne earlier this season, Williams started thinking she would like to help someone from within the UD family this year.
She reached out to Byrne on Facebook -- it wasn't hard to find such an avid Flyers fan amid the school's online community -- and asked if she would be all right with the team returning some of the love by raising money for her.
"Just the strength that she has is unreal," Williams said of Byrne, who persevered through her illness to graduate from Dayton earlier this year. "It makes me realize that my life is pretty easy, and this sounds silly, but that we do all take little things for granted. What she's been through is just unbelievable. I can't even list what she's had to go through it's so in-depth. The fact that she is such a huge supporter of ours and still so grateful for being a Dayton Flyer, it just matched up perfectly."
A high-flying offense notwithstanding, Dayton probably won't win that national championship this season. And yet maybe the point is the difference one person made the past four seasons by believing the Flyers could.
Just as that same person believes something as simple as giving one dollar can make a difference if enough people believe it.
"As competitive as Colleen is, she might be the most hated kid on the field in our league by other teams," Tucker said. "But they don't know that side of her at all, and that's unfortunate because she cares about other people."