A lot of athletes say they grew up in the sport they play. Jacob Williams really grew up in soccer.
His Jamaican-born father, Omar, loved the game and passed that trait down like a centering feed leading to a goal. And goals are something Williams knows about as a three-time All-Patriot League striker for a Navy team currently enjoying a stellar 11-4-1 season.
And for the speedy 5-foot-8 Williams, it may all be traced back to family soccer games on Tuesday or Thursday nights on fields around Columbia, Md., like Covenant Park or the local soccer association pitches, where he went toe-to-toe with his father and uncles, cousins and anybody else they could round up. Often as many as 10 of the players were related to Williams, and they took it upon themselves to educate him in the game.
“My father was a defender so naturally he taught me how to beat defenders,” Williams said. “Most of my family, my older cousins and uncles, they’re all defenders. I think it’s me and one uncle who are offense-minded.”
Williams is currently tied for the Navy lead with five goals and he has also chipped in four assists this year, a selfless and integral part of head coach Tim O’Donohue’s balanced attack.
“He has really helped galvanize the program with his ability to finish,” the coach said of Williams’ quick-strike capabilities. “He takes up so much attention [from the defense] that it opens up things for everyone else.”
Williams is sixth in the nation with 4.40 shots per game, an indication of how defenses must be wary when he’s on the attack. He has been first-team All-Patriot League the past two seasons and burst on the scene as the 2018 Patriot League Rookie of the Year with a team-leading eight goals. His late season emergence coincided with what has become a remarkable run for the Midshipmen, who won their last four games that year and have now been victorious in 31 of their last 44 matches with three ties.
“We really struggled scoring goals but then that year  Jacob became so creative and dangerous,” O’Donohue said. “He kind of put us on his back and carried us and we got some confidence. We got momentum at the end and we’ve been consistently playing well since then.”
O’Donohue focused on recruiting when he came aboard and though the Naval Academy is a national brand, he wanted to emphasize local recruits, particularly in soccer hotbed Maryland.
“When I got into coaching a friend told me all you need is a gas card and driving within 55 miles you can find all you need,” O’Donohue said. “You don’t always need to get on a plane. And that always stuck with me.”
The Midshipmen have three key starters from within a 25-mile radius — senior forward Williams from Millersville, senior center back Tyler Collins from Crofton, and freshman left back Charlie Kriel from Severna Park.
Collins is two-time All-Patriot League and he and Williams immediately increased the Mids’ athleticism and skill level. Kriel looks cut from a similar cloth and has started every game this season.
Coming down the stretch, Navy needs to stay shipshape. At 5-3 in the conference, the Mids are in fourth place in a league where only the top six teams qualify for the Patriot League tournament. The regular season wraps Nov. 3 at American, though Navy clinched a berth in the league tournament with a 1-0 win against Bucknell Oct. 31.
Williams has found defenses loading up to stop him recently, perhaps even worse than having your whole family roughing you up in local pickup games. Still, he was the United Soccer Coaches National Player of the Week after three goals in a win against Army on Oct. 9. It was the first hat trick for a Midshipman since the 2012 season.
“He’s just dangerous, he has all the characteristics of a scorer but he’s not a traditional forward or winger,” O’Donohue said. “He’s very versatile.”
Williams thinks that adaptability is his greatest asset. When you grow up the youngest player kicking it around with the adults, you learn that trait. You also learn to work hard. O’Donohue talked about how Williams often finds time in his heavily structured schedule to work on his game. For instance, he’ll get a bag of balls and take shots on goal with coaches during lunch.
Again, that goes back to growing up in a futbol family. “There was always a soccer ball around and we knew where to find it,” Williams said.
He went to Old Mill High School and also played for Baltimore Armour, for which he was a quick study thanks to that tutelage from his father, his uncles and cousins.
Omar Williams remembers growing up in Jamaica playing with boxes, “anything you could kick. It was a treat whenever we had a ball.” Things were different for Jacob, but the family games had their own obstacles.
“I always defended him harder than anyone else,” Omar laughed. “I would tackle him really hard, and my brothers thought I was too rough, being so aggressive.”
Omar, who had four brothers and four sisters, came to the United States when he was 16 years old and built a life for himself and his family, including wife Pamela. Today, one of their biggest challenges is rounding up enough passes and transportation to get the extended family and friends all to Navy home soccer games. With parking on The Yard restricted, it can be an ordeal accommodating everyone. Jacob Williams has had as many as 30-40 folks coming just to see him play, and most of them are in his extended family.
There are always a lot of eyes on Williams, it seems. O’Donohue said teammates watch his example.
“He’s not a rah-rah leader, but he’s a guy grabbing a bag of balls and going to work,” the coach said. “If he hasn’t scored a goal in a couple of games he’s just quietly working on his craft and that’s an important type of player to have in your program that the younger players can see.”
Williams was recruited by more established soccer powers like Maryland, Georgetown, Villanova and Notre Dame, but chose Navy to help build something with O’Donohue. The Navy commitment and more rigorous lifestyle was a little daunting at first but Williams adapted as he is wont to do.
“It was a little overwhelming at first,” Williams said, “but once you realize what you’re doing is not just for yourself, that everything you’re doing is for those around you and has a greater purpose, it makes it a challenge you want to overcome and be a part of.”
Williams is an English major and he’s likely headed into surface warfare as his service specialty. The travel and working with a diverse community appeal to him. It has been said that it takes a village to raise a solid, contributing citizen, but maybe it just takes family soccer games.
Photo Credit: Phil Hoffmann/Navy Athletics