When Cole Williams was deciding whether to return to John Hopkins for a fifth year after COVID-19 had forced the previous season to be shut down, he knew exactly where to go for advice.

He didn’t have to stray far from home.

His oldest brother, Kyle, played lacrosse at St. Joseph’s University from 2010-2013, was the team’s Rookie of the Year in 2010 and was named Hawks MVP in 2011.

His other brother, Chad, played at Stevenson from 2013-2016 and helped the Mustangs to the 2013 NCAA Division III national championship.

Cole prepped at Loyola Blakefield, while Kyle and Chad played for Marriotts Ridge in Howard County. The three brothers are close, and Kyle and Chad helped steer Cole in the best direction. Now, the 6-foot-5, 215-pound midfielder is helping lead the Blue Jays in head coach Peter Milliman’s first year at the helm. He is also working on a master’s degree in finance.

“My whole family had a hand in the decision to return,” Cole Williams said. “My brothers knew that I wanted to return, and they knew how important being a part of a college lacrosse team was based on their previous experience. Ultimately, they told me that I have the rest of my life to work and that I should seize the opportunity to play the sport that I love for another year if there was even a sliver of a chance.

“Over the years, my brothers have pushed me to succeed and it has been fun being able to play with them on the same men’s league teams during the past couple of summers.”

Williams acknowledged the 2020 shutdown with COVID-19 was especially challenging. He had started all six games on attack and led the team in points (17) and assists (6) and was tied for the team lead in goals (11) when sports across the globe were halted.

Johns Hopkins had gone 2-4 before the season was canceled.

“March 2020 was definitely one of the more trying months that I have experienced in my life,” Williams said. “The immediate impact of the shutdown was [sadness], as I figured it was probably the last time that our senior class would ever be together at the same time. As the weeks continued, the shutdown brought forth a ton of uncertainty with where my future was headed, which was tough.”

After the season, Williams altered his workout routine and learned to enjoy going on long-distance runs throughout his neighborhood. In addition, he was able to maintain his strength by working out with his brother, Chad, in the weight room at the family’s home.

“It was nice to have my brother at home so that I was able to have a workout buddy and we were able to push each other to work out harder,” Williams said. “Since there wasn’t much lacrosse being played during quarantine I switched to playing more basketball in my backyard, which was nice because I have always missed my basketball playing days at Loyola Blakefield.”

The challenges, however, didn’t end there.

After the lacrosse season was shut down, Johns Hopkins decided to part ways with longtime coach Dave Pietramala after 20 years. Pietramala is the winningest coach in Johns Hopkins men’s lacrosse history, compiling a record of 207-93 and winning two national championships (2005 and 2007). The Blue Jays hadn’t won a national title since 1987 when he arrived as the head coach in the summer of 2000 and hadn’t played in a national championship game since 1989.

Williams had a strong bond with Pietramala along with assistants Bobby Benson and Bill Dwan. However, he forged a solid relationship with Milliman, who was hired from Cornell in April 2020.

“It has been an awesome opportunity to play under Coach Milliman,” Williams said. “Coach Milliman has been devoted to this team ever since he received the job. He has battled the challenges of leading a new program during a pandemic well. He has never let the pandemic or him being in his first year at a new program be an excuse.”

To help with the transition, Milliman and his staff have found a balance between implementing new schemes while also keeping previous concepts that worked for the team in the past. In the process, Williams and Milliman have helped each other with the ongoing adjustments. They’ve already built a solid relationship, and there is trust among the players and coaches.

“Cole has been a terrific leader since I first began working with him,” Milliman said. “He has a lot of experience in this program, and that is very beneficial for the younger guys on the team as well as some of the upperclassmen who know and trust Cole as well. I was excited to get him back here for a fifth year with the team, and I have been really impressed with the way that he has carried himself throughout a very challenging year.”

Previously an attackman and midfielder, Williams was moved to the midfield full time to maximize his dodging success in the new offense. Williams has also become a more vocal presence on the field, and he has helped bridge the gap between the “old” ways of doing things and the “new” ideas that the coaching staff wants to install.

“Coach Milliman emphasizes that his coaching role is to give us the tools to be successful on the field without him having to dictate every move that we make,” Williams said. “He doesn’t want us to play robotic and have us rely on the coaches to make every move for the players. As a player, that mindset is exactly what you want from a coaching staff. Having the freedom to play without relying on the coaches is what will allow us to be successful on the field.”

Williams has been one of the Blue Jays’ most dominant players again this season. Heading into Hopkins’ matchup with Ohio State April 10, Williams was third on the team with 15 points (10 goals, 5 assists).

Williams has aspirations to continue to play professional lacrosse after Johns Hopkins. He was already drafted by the Philadelphia Wings of the National Lacrosse League, and he plans to join that team once his college career wraps up. Williams would like to find a job somewhere in the finance industry in Baltimore as well.

For now, his focus is on Johns Hopkins and helping the team make a run at a Big Ten title. He has no regrets about returning for the fifth year.

“There were many factors that led to my decision to come back, and one of them was that I really wanted to finish my career at Johns Hopkins the right way,” Williams said. “It did not sit right with me that I would not be able to experience the conventional final game in a Johns Hopkins uniform due to the shutdown, so I immediately knew that I wanted to come back.

“Another factor that led to me coming back was that I was presented the opportunity to continue my education at the Carey Business School while still being able to play college lacrosse. Having the ability to obtain a master’s degree and set up my career after lacrosse was important to the decision to return.”

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Johns Hopkins Athletics

Issue 268: April/May 2021

Todd Karpovich

See all posts by Todd Karpovich. Follow Todd Karpovich on Twitter at @toddkarpovich