Williston High School is building another program.
Last summer, the school hired Hall of Fame coach Robby Pruitt to turn around the football program.
Boy, did he ever.
The Red Devils were 1-8 the year before Pruitt arrived and went 10-0 during the regular season in his first year this past fall.
But in order to accomplish such a difficult task they had to put in the work.
“If you look at the situation, in the last 12 years they’ve had one winning season and that was 6-4 so we’ve got to get them used to believing in their self and we’ve got to get them in the weight room,” Pruitt said after their spring game last May. “They just haven’t had a program.”
His program included a new weight room, new uniforms, and a nutrition program, among other things.
Pruitt has brought hope to Williston football.
They capped their unbeaten regular season with a convincing 57-28 win against Levy County rival Chiefland in the regular season finale, before falling to Wildwood, 46-35, in the opening round of the Class 1A state playoffs.
Meanwhile, the Williston boys basketball team just won its first basketball state title in program history.
This past Friday night, Williston defeated Chipley, 58-49, to win the Class 1A state title.
Red Devils head coach Jim Ervin, who is in his third season at Williston, talked about building a program.
He alluded to a number of factors such as a state-of-the-art locker room and the success of the Williston JV and middle school teams.
Now they’ve got a state title to build off of.
This past season, Williston won 25 games, a district title, a regional title, and a state title. They swept 6A Gainesville and won three games against 1A No. 1 Wildwood, including road wins against the Wildcats in the district championship game (70-60) and the regional final (66-63).
“A dream,” Ervin said in Lakeland when asked to describe the season as a whole.
It was also his first state championship in 26 years of coaching.
But now that he has won one he knows what it takes to win another.
While there are the above-mentioned things that must be done off the court, history indicates that on the court there is something you need to take you from good to great.
Years ago, some of the area coaches summed it best about what it takes to win a state basketball title.
You need good guard play and you need a “Teen Wolf,” a reference to the 80s movie about a high school student who transformed into a werewolf to dominate the competition on the basketball floor.
Williston’s “Teen Wolf” was Greg Maxwell, the nephew of former Gator and Houston Rockets 2-time NBA champion Vernon Maxwell.
The younger Maxwell struggled in the state semifinals, but when the big lights were on, he shined.
The senior scored 22 points against Chipley, including nine in the opening quarter. He also added six rebounds and eight steals.
“I had to get my redemption for the team,” Maxwell said about only scoring three points in the semifinals, although he still contributed with six assists and three steals in the win against Franklin County.
Senior point guard Jeythian Merced was ‘Steady Eddie’ for Williston, with 19 points, six assists and four steals in the final four, including two free throws with 38 seconds to play against Chipley for a two-possession lead (54-49).
But the road to a championship started almost a year ago.
Just like the football team, the basketball team was grinding during the summer.
Williston played 52 games this past summer.
It was at the midway point of the summer that Ervin knew this team could bring home the school’s first-ever state title.
“This team has played a lot of games, you’ve got to remember that,” Ervin said. “In that 52-game stretch, game 28, we got in the huddle after a camp and they said, ‘hey, we’re winning the state title this year,’ and that’s coming from the kids, not the coaching staff, and they set forth to win a state title and look what we did.”
Last year, they were knocking on the door. The Red Devils were just a few seconds from advancing to the final four last year but lost at Hawthorne, 49-46, in the region final.
Now that they’ve busted through the door, the Red Devils relish the opportunity to defend this year’s state title.
“We’ve got a great foundation, our middle school went undefeated this year, our JV game lost four games all year, so we’ve got a great foundation,” Ervin said. “We’re building a program here is what we’re trying to do, that’s going to be competitive at the state level every year. That’s our goal.”
The Red Devils (25-7) will lose Maxwell and Merced to graduation. However, starters Javon Brown, Quincy Parker, and Kyler Lamb will be back for one final season with a chance to repeat.
The trio combined for 37 points, 17 rebounds, six assists and seven steals against the Seahawks (20-8) in the state semifinals.
Lamb and Parker combined for 14 points in the first quarter against the Tigers (21-7) to help give the Williston a 23-9 lead.
Losing Maxwell, in particular, will be tough. But the Trinity Catholic (Ocala) transfer didn’t play for the team in 2022 when they came close to getting to Lakeland.
The Red Devils are experienced and primed to make another run.
“We have six out of our top eight players returning and we look forward to being back in Lakeland next year,” Ervin said.