BY DAVE LINK
Abby Williams was a couple of weeks into her job last summer as the girls’ basketball coach and assistant athletic director at Christian Academy of Knoxville.
She’d had one practice with the Lady Warriors before taking them to a two-day team camp. She left the camp with a good impression of her players.
“I told my assistants, ‘This could be really special, just the way that they bought in,’ ” Williams recalls. “They were so eager just to hold onto anything we said. I was like, ‘We can work with that. We can work with kids that want to be better, that want to be a part of something and write their own story.’
“And they sure did that.”
CAK (28-6) rolled through the postseason and into the Division II-A state championship game, where it lost to Providence Christian, 41-29.
The Lady Warriors were limited in the two state games with their star player, senior point guard Claire Brock, struggling to play due to illness.
“They came up a little bit short, but just the leaps and bounds they made from even last year to this year were phenomenal,” said Williams, the 2018-19 5Star Preps Girls’ Basketball Coach of the Year. “That was all a testament to them, and we had some really good senior leadership and the kids that had been here who just bought in and wanted to keep building on where they were. It was a fun ride this year, that’s for sure.”
It was like a dream season for Williams, who had no idea she’d be coaching at CAK when her phone rang one day early last summer.
Williams had just finished her first year as eighth-grade assistant principal at South-Doyle Middle School. She got a call from former CAK girls coach Caitlin Hollifield, who had left to take the girls head coaching job at West.
Hollifield asked Williams what she thought of the CAK job, piquing Williams’ interest.
Williams soon met with CAK athletic director Ried Estus for a couple of hours and was sold on the idea of going to CAK.
“I was just kind of in awe of the place, just everything they represented and what they wanted the school to be, and not even basketball, just where they wanted all these kids to go in life,” Williams said.
“It was almost like too good to be true, so I went through the process for a few more weeks, met with the head of school, met with some of the players, met with some of the other coaches. It did feel like a perfect fit, just the idea of my kids having the opportunity to come here and get a Christian education, and I’d be here with them.”
One of the biggest attractions to CAK for Williams was the opportunity to coach again. As an assistant principal in Knox County Schools, Williams wasn’t allowed to coach; only two such administrators in Knox County, Fulton basketball coach Jody Wright and South-Doyle football coach Clark Duncan, have been allowed to continue coaching.
“I loved my job and loved where I was (at South-Doyle Middle),” William said. “I hated I didn’t get to coach, but I was OK with it. I kept AAU in my back pocket a little bit there (as coach of the Tennessee Fury).”
Williams had plenty of playing and coaching experience when hired at CAK.
Abby (Evans) Williams played basketball and volleyball at Halls High School, where she graduated in 2006. She played guard for two years at Carson-Newman before transferring to Tennessee-Chattanooga, but only to attend school.
Her first coaching job was at Chattanooga Red Bank as an assistant with the boys’ basketball team in 2010-11.
Williams returned to Knoxville in 2011-12 to South-Doyle Middle, where she coached the girls basketball team, and spent the next year as an assistant with Bearden High’s girls under Justin Underwood. She left Bearden after one season, went to South-Doyle High School as its head girls’ coach for three seasons, and stepped down when she and her husband, Darren, were expecting their second child.
Her coaching itch didn’t subside, though. She returned to Bearden to help Underwood part-time in 2016-17 before accepting the assistant principal’s job at South-Doyle Middle for 2017-18.
After taking the CAK job, Williams began evaluating her roster, and figured one key would be replacing departed senior Amber Heatherley.
There was a more pressing issue, though, facing Williams and assistant coaches Greg McMurry, Donnie Cooper, and Erin Walsh.
“Numbers-wise weren’t very big when I took over,” Williams said. “We only had five girls that played last year. I was like, ‘OK, we’ve got to figure out where we can get some more kids to come play.’ You can play with five, but it’s going to be a long season if we don’t find somebody else.”
Williams had previously coached CAK sophomore Caroline Meyers – who plays travel volleyball — and got her to come out for the team. A couple more players joined at the start of the school years, and with the incoming freshmen, CAK had a team of 11 players for its postseason run this year.
It was led by three seniors: Brock, Ellie Fussell, and Kennedy Smith.
“All three seniors played five years at the high school,” Williams said. “Those three were the only three that made it through from beginning to the end.”
Brock, who signed with Emory University, was the feature player on the team, who averaged 19.8 points during the season and 29 points in four games prior to the state semifinal.
Junior forward Hannah Carroll averaged about nine points during the season, and Fussell and Smith about seven points each.
“We get in the postseason, and it was a different ballgame for our seniors,” Williams said. “They really kind of stepped up and took on more roles and realized they had to contribute more, and they did that. That’s where our success kind of came.”
CAK’s chances at state were bleak due to Brock’s illness.
Brock scored two points in 26 minutes of the state semifinal, a 47-39 victory over Northpoint Christian. Fussell had 16 points in 32 minutes of the win, while Myers had 13 points in 28 minutes and Carroll seven points in 29 minutes.
In the state final, Brock had three points in 11 minutes. Carroll was the team’s leading scorer with nine points in 32 minutes; Smith scored eight in 32 minutes and Fussell five in 31 minutes.
Williams said her group embodied the team aspect.
“This wasn’t a jealous team,” she said. “This wasn’t a team where we had kids saying, ‘I’ve got to get mine, or she’s getting more than me.’ They just looked up to each other. They relied on one another to be successful. Claire, yes, she led in a lot of areas, but Claire also knew that she couldn’t do what she did without the other girls as well. As much as they looked up to her and they looked for her to do things, she did the same to them.
“I never felt throughout the season there was ever any kind of turmoil or anything. Sometimes that happens. This group, all they wanted to do is win. They wanted to do it together, and they did. It may not have been the ending we wanted, but we have said since that (state final) has been over that that one game does not define who we are or what we were able to do or the legacy they left CAK basketball.”