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Tuesday, April 16, 2024
The Observer

‘The opportunity I came for’: Williams looks for storybook ending to collegiate career

Mo Williams' road to Notre Dame was not a simple one.

The graduate student centerback's college career has seen all sorts of ups and downs. He was part of a Cincinnati Bearcats program that disbanded amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. At his next stop, Seton Hall, he helped lead the Pirates to a second-ever NCAA Quarterfinals appearance. And now he's in South Bend, with a chance to make his own College Cup debut.

Three teams, six seasons. Williams' wealth of experience stands out, even on an Irish team that frequently starts 10 upperclassmen. He's composed in the biggest moments, a trait that proved vital last Saturday when Notre Dame battled Western Michigan in the NCAA Tournament Round of 16.

When sophomore midfielder KK Baffour was shown a red card in just the 27th minute of the match, the Irish immediately faced an uphill climb. The Broncos had already earned most of the matches' best chances and would now play with an additional man the rest of the way. Notre Dame leaned on the experience of Williams — as well as fellow backline members Kyle Genenbacher, Josh Ramsey and Paddy Burns — to make up the difference.

Williams was one of six Irish players to play all 110 minutes of a 0-0 draw that would eventually end in a penalty shootout victory for Notre Dame. His steady demeanor never wavered, even as Western Michigan racked up 20 shots, the second-most the Irish have faced all season. Whether a towering clearance or a calm pass out of the back was needed, Williams answered the call.

It's hardly a shock that Williams was ready to go when the Irish most needed players to show veteran savvy and grit. Part of why he chose Notre Dame out of the transfer portal was the allure of potentially lifting silverware in his final collegiate years. After a turbulent 2022 season for the Irish, Williams is thriving in the sort of postseason games at Alumni Stadium that drew him to South Bend.

"This is the opportunity that I came for," Williams said. "I think this is the best case scenario, you know, coming in and being one of the older guys on the team. We have a lot of adversity, being a high seed in the tournament we have a lot of pressure on us. But [experience] has taught me just take care of the guys and cherish every moment I get...you never know when our last game is going to be played."

Williams' role as a keystone piece for the Irish come postseason was far from a guarantee back in September, though. The graduate student's minutes were in flux all season. He didn't play in the team's first four games altogether and didn't make his first start until Notre Dame's ninth contest against Virginia. He then returned to the bench as an unused substitute against NC State and received just nine minutes of action against Duke. A start against Division III Oberlin was followed up by two more substitute cameos against Virginia Tech and Michigan.

Eventually, though, Williams' time arrived. Sophomore defender Mitch Ferguson picked up an injury ahead of the team's critical matchup against Wake Forest, leaving an 1000+ minute hole in the center of the Irish backline. Coach Chad Riley turned to Williams to fill in.

That faith was quickly repaid. Notre Dame earned a hard-fought 1-1 draw on the road against the Demon Deacons, clinching the ACC Coastal Division title. Williams hasn't left the field since he got the starting nod in North Carolina, and Notre Dame's defense has pitched three shutouts in six matches —  including each of their first two NCAA Tournament games.

For Williams, though, it was never about the amount of minutes he played in a game. It's always been about filling whatever part is needed to put the team in a position to win.

"It's just being bought in," Williams said. "Whatever role I have, just doing it to the best of my ability. Coming off the bench is not easy, but [I was] just waiting my turn, every opportunity I get, making the most of it, and doing what Coach [Riley] needs me to do so that we can be in the best position to win."

Williams prioritizing winning is far from a surprise. Every other member of Notre Dame's Round of 16 starting lineup can return for another year in South Bend, should they wish. The same is not true for Williams. One more loss would be his final game at the collegiate level.

Depending on how far the Irish can progress in the tournament, Williams has a maximum of 330 minutes remaining in his college career. With his eyes on helping Notre Dame capture a second national championship, it's a safe bet he'll make each one he gets count.