SEABROOK – Maxwell Willis had a slew of college track coaches promise him the chance to win a NCAA championship. Only Baylor University’s staff laid out a detailed plan on how to get there as part of the recruiting pitch. So far, so good. Willis capped off a brilliant freshman year with the Bears by […]
SEABROOK – Maxwell Willis had a slew of college track coaches promise him the chance to win a NCAA championship.
Only Baylor University’s staff laid out a detailed plan on how to get there as part of the recruiting pitch.
So far, so good.
Willis capped off a brilliant freshman year with the Bears by finishing 14th overall in the 100-meter dash (10.18 seconds) and 18th overall in the 200-meter dash (20.64 seconds) at the NCAA championships earlier this month.
The Upper Marlboro native posted the most points of anyone at the Big 12 Championships in May, including a win in the 200, on the way to conference freshman of the year honors. He also placed fifth in the 200 at the NCAA indoor championships in March.
Willis has put in the work to keep progressing. He’s followed orders on tweaking his form and boosting his fitness to take his place among the nation’s best.
“I just focus on what I have to focus on day by day, but for me to achieve all the stuff that I have achieved this year, it makes me proud,” Willis said. “If I can run that fast and do that good as a freshman, then I know the rest of my three years are going to be outstanding.”
Willis had his pick of top-flight colleges after a decorated youth career locally. He made a name for himself as a youngster with the Glenarden Track Club and helped Bowie High School win a state title before moving on to Archbishop Carroll High School in Washington, D.C., for his senior year.
Willis chose Baylor over Texas A&M and TCU, convinced by the care assistant Michael Ford put into mapping his future. The Bears have a track record of developing elite sprinters. It dates back three decades to four-time Olympic gold medalist Michael Johnson. Willis wanted the challenge of trying to continue that legacy.
“He’s got the ability to be one of the top sprinters in the U.S.,” Ford said. “I think we’ve just got to keep on cleaning up the small things. It’s not really the big things with him. It’s more about the small things.”
Willis has enjoyed the process so far. He rarely lifted before arriving on campus, so it’s been eye-opening learning his way around the weight room.
On the track, Ford has recommended subtle changes that have paid big dividends. Willis has focused on making his stride more efficient and repeatable. Any little bit helps in races that are regularly decided by fractions of a second.
“My form has really changed a lot,” Willis said. “My arms. My legs. All of it.”
Willis surprised himself with his performance at the end of the indoor season. After some growing pains initially, he rounded into form with a 200-meter conference championship and All-American honors at the NCAA meet.
He narrowly qualified for the eight-man national final, edging the ninth-place finisher by three-thousandths of a second. Then, he ran a near-perfect race to place fifth in 20.69 seconds.
“I figured there’s no pressure on me at all,” Willis said. “When I got down on the blocks, I just told myself to have fun.”
Off that showing, Willis faced more expectations outdoors. He answered them by scoring a total of 20.5 points at the Big 12 Championship with two wins (200 and 4×400 relay), a second (4×100 relay) and a third (100).
The NCAA meet in Oregon didn’t go quite as smoothly. He was pleased with his effort in the 100 against a stacked field, but a bit disappointed to fall short of the 200 final.
The future is bright, though. Willis was the only freshman out of 24 qualifiers in the 200. There was only one other newcomer in the 100.
“Every meet is a learning experience,” Willis said. “Nationals are just more of a learning experience. You know everybody’s on top of their A-game.”
Two weeks ago he was on a trip to the USATF Junior Nationals in Sacramento, Calif, where he vied for a chance to represent the U.S. at the Pan-Am Junior Games next month in Peru. He finished first in the 100 with a time of 10.26 seconds, however pulled up lame in the 200 with a hamstring injury.
Now, it’s back to Baylor to get ready for year two. He’s excited for the next step in the plan.
“I just keep pushing through it because I know that it all pays,” Willis said. “Whether you’re working hard or not, it’s all going to show in the end.”