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Williams walks off the mat

A positive influence Solon wrestling head coach decides it’s time after 23 years

SOLON– He’ll miss the daily connection with the kids the most.
You get pretty close to those high school wrestlers over winter.
“You’re spending more time with them than you probably are your own kids,” Solon Head Wrestling Coach Blake Williams said. “And they become your kids.”
Williams, 45, announced April 30 he is stepping down from the head coaching position, although he will continue as a physical education instructor for the intermediate and middle school.
He’s not walking away from his sport, promising to be involved some way, but his 23-year career as a head high school varsity coach is over.
“Wrestling has been such a big part of my life, pretty much my whole life,” he said. “It was such a difficult decision.”
Any time you’ve put so much time and effort into something it’s tough, he noted. “I don’t think there’s ever a good time to step down.”
But he had a feeling at the end of the 2020 season that this might be it.
He had planned to use spring break to evaluate the decision, but the COVID-19 pandemic made it a lot harder for determine if he really wanted to stop.
Not being able to talk to the kids face-to-face didn’t help.
The Spartans’ awards night banquet had been scheduled for the week after spring break, but was postponed to a virtual get-together April 30.
Williams submitted his letter of resignation to the district that morning and
made the announcement to his wrestlers that night via videoconference.
“It wasn’t ideal, but it was probably the best we could do considering,” he observed.
Williams amassed a 413-117-1 career record as head coach, was named State Coach of the Year in 2006 and Des Moines Register All Iowa Coach of the Year in 2017.
His teams finished in the top-five at the State Traditional Meet seven times, with 124 total state qualifiers, 71 medalists and eight champions. The 2020 Spartans were fourth at individual state.
A Decorah native, he was coached by his father in high school and went on to be a two-time place winner at the state wrestling tournament.
As a junior at Wartburg College in 1996, he was part of the team that won the institution’s first national title and was named an All-American.
Fresh out of college in 1997, Williams obtained his first teaching position at Center Point, and served as an assistant wrestling coach for two years before accepting the head coaching position at Solon in 1999.
He spent four years with the Spartans, taking the team to the State Dual Meet in 2001 before accepting the head coaching position at College Community School District.
While at Solon, he met future wife Emy, who was coaching cross country but teaching in Mount Vernon. They married in 2004 and have two children– daughter Ashlyn, an incoming freshman, and son Teague, who will be a seventh grader later this year.
After 12 years at Cedar Rapids Prairie, Williams returned to Solon for the 2015-16 season. The next year, the Spartans won the State Traditional Wrestling championship and were second at the State Duals.
When he left Prairie to come back to Solon, he was already starting to contemplate how long he wanted to be a head coach. Returning was more of a family decision, allowing Williams to be closer to his children, part of their daily lives, even teaching them.
“The wrestling was kind of the icing on the cake,” he said.
Family also played a part in his most recent decision.
“I’ve been coaching for 23 years and it seems like I’ve spent a lot of time coaching other kids and I’ve missed out on some little things here and there,” he explained. “Some of it is I just kind of want to enjoy their middle school and high school years, and just kind of be a parent, be a spectator and enjoy whatever they choose to do.”
His wife and kids have been there for him.
“They knew it was a very tough decision and they knew I’ve been struggling for the last month with it,” he said. “They’ve really helped me a lot.”
In any high school sport, being a head coach is very demanding and time consuming.
During a typical week in the season, there is practice after school and sometimes a morning activity as well. In addition, there might be a Spartan Wrestling Club practice. Williams is proud of the kindergarten through eighth grade youth program, organized by the high school level.
“In essence, it’s one big family,” he noted.
Then a Thursday meet rolls around and the team leaves at the end of school and gets back at 11 p.m. Saturdays are big days with tournaments, all-day events with the team on the road as early as 5 a.m., and some tournaments include an overnight trip. The season stretches from November to March.
“I don’t know if it’s any different than any other sport on time demands, but there definitely is a lot,” Williams observed.
But the biggest factor in letting go was being comfortable with the state of wrestling in Solon.
“I feel really good about where the program is right now,” he said.
He came back to Solon to improve on its success, and he feels he’s done that with the help of his coaches and support from the school administration and community.
“It’s been so fun, and it’s been a great career and I can’t thank enough people, all the wrestlers I’ve had the opportunity to coach, the parental support, the administration support, the community support,” he said. “In both districts, really.
“I couldn’t have asked for two better head coaching positions in my career and I’m very grateful to have had that opportunity.”
Success, however, is not based on titles or records, he said.
It’s all about hearing students express their appreciation after realizing the hard work they went through has made what they are attempting in life easier.
“My hope is that I had a small piece in their life, that they’ve learned something from me and the sport of wrestling that will carry over into the rest of their lives,” he said. “To me that’s more powerful than any win or championship or anything like that.”
It’s a passion to be an influence in the lives of young athletes.
Williams counts himself lucky.
He’ll still teach 650 kids as a physical education teacher
“That’s the beauty of being an educator,” he summarized. “You can have that positive impact on many kids and in my position, I have that opportunity still.”