Benefield: Sonoma Academy's Andre Williams turning on the jets in cross country

It was not your normal pre-race prep.

The Sonoma Academy cross country team was scheduled to compete at the 35th annual Mariner Invitational in Hayward on Saturday. Normally, an out-of-town meet calls for demands of early bedtimes and proper hydration the night before.

Granted, the Mariner is not a huge race, but it can be hugely important for some runners at this point in the season because it's on the same Hayward High School course that will be used for the North Coast Section race on Nov. 17.

But Saturday was also the day after Sonoma Academy's homecoming dance.

And senior Andre Williams may run light and fluid, but apparently he dances hard.

“I dance ... really hard at all the school dances, so going into Saturday I was super tired and my hamstrings were kind of tight. I'm like, ‘Oh, great, I'm going to have a horrible race,'” he said.

At this point, my curiosity is piqued. What, exactly, does it mean to dance hard?

“You kinda got to be there,” he said. “You have to see it.”

For the vast majority of us, that part will remain a mystery. What is no mystery is what happened the morning after homecoming.

Williams uncorked a whopper of a personal record, finishing the 3-mile course in 14:47 behind Redwood High senior Liam Anderson, perhaps the most celebrated high school distance runner out there right now.

And in an awesome local one-two punch, Windsor High senior Lucas Chung finished fourth with a 14:50.

For perspective on Williams' time at Mariner, consider this: He ran a 15:51 on that course at NCS last season to take third behind two seniors.

And that race was one week before the state finals at Woodward Park in Fresno, where Williams finished fourth in the Division 5 race. All three guys who beat him were seniors. No one among this year's crop of standout prep runners ran faster at state last year than Williams.

That result lit a fire under Williams. He's been racing on that fuel ever since.

“After the state meet, I was definitely filled with a bunch of confidence about what I could do (this) year,” he said.

“It was a breakout moment for him,” Sonoma Academy coach Danny Aldridge said. “Since that moment I think he just believed more in himself - ‘I can run in college, I can do this.'”

And in order to see what he could do, he's been running. Hard and a lot.

He's always run hard, Aldridge said, but a newfound belief in results has changed how Williams is approaching workouts.

“He came to understand that he is a runner and he enjoys it,” Aldridge said. “That is the key.”

His focus is different now. After his success at state last year, he said he was ready to commit to this running thing.

“He came to me and said, ‘You know what? I'm ready to do what I need to do,'” Aldridge said.

He got strong results last spring during track season, including the second-best 3,200 meter time in the Empire. And he ran more than he ever has in his life last summer to prepare for his senior cross country campaign.

“Every workout he's ready, he's up for it,” Aldridge said.

Even the most wicked workouts don't faze him.

“He kind of jokingly says, ‘That's it?' That's all we're doing?'” Aldridge said. “A couple of times I've gotten him to admit it was a hard workout.

“I told him when he came here, if he wanted to be good, this is the stuff (he was) going to have to be able to do within a year or two,” he said.

Williams transferred to Sonoma Academy from Kelseyville after his sophomore year. He was successful with the Knights, but he's on another plane as a Coyote.

He opened his senior season with a 15:31 on the Spring Lake course in the Bob Shor Invitational. That made him the new school record holder and the 33rd-fastest of all time.

Two weeks later at the Coastal Mountain Conference meet, he went 15:24 - a new CMC record. No one has run that course faster this season. In fact, no one has run that heavily trod course any faster since Santa Rosa grad Daniel Pride posted a 15:20 in 2015.

Williams set a school record for the two-mile course at the Viking Invitational with a finish of 10:10. At the Stanford Invitational on Sept. 29, he won the Division 5 race in 15:42. The second place finisher? He crossed the line 29 seconds later. Williams' time was the fastest by any Empire runner that day.

The Coyotes will race in an NCLII meet today at Spring Lake, where Williams will see runners not only from the CMC, but by luck of some scheduling, also runners from Piner and Montgomery.

“I think he has a very high ceiling,” Aldridge said. “It comes down to the will to keep wanting to do it. Can you keep the joy of running going? I think he's going to get better as he goes off to college with more runners around him.”

Sooner than that, he'll get that kind of pushing and prodding at the state meet. It's a sea of bodies spread wide across an open field before the course sends them into a narrower path. It can be overwhelming.

“Everyone starts out really fast, usually,” Williams said. “I think the second mile is where the race really starts, because that is when the top guys that went out too fast start to die back and that's where the top guys who will be there at the end will be.”

The top guy at the end. That's where Williams wants to be. That will be cause for dancing. Maybe even some hard dancing.

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield.

Kerry Benefield

Columnist, The Press Democrat

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