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Leadership, unfinished business drive Williams' decision to return

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This is the first of a six-part season preview, highlighting some of UK's top returnees before the season opener on Feb. 17 in Spartanburg, S.C., against Wofford.

Every summer, one of the biggest jobs for every college coach in the country is to help its juniors and seniors with the MLB Draft process.

For some juniors, the decision to sign as a draft pick is simple. For others it is one to ponder and important to gather information and make an informed decision.

A 37th round selection of the defending World Series Champion San Francisco Giants, Kentucky senior catcher Michael Williams fell in the latter category.

"It was a tough decision," Williams said. "When it came down to it, you just have to go with your heart and I feel like with the class we have coming in and the team we have already have there we have a good chance to compete in the SEC and make the tournament this year, make a run in the postseason this year. I am just ready to get back there and impact the team and help the young guys out."

"Well we have one of the best catchers in the country, Michael Williams. I don't think I would throw myself in that ring. Mike is really a lot of fun to watch catch. He has so many tools, is so talented and knows the game so well. I learn a lot from him on a daily basis. He is a guy that works as hard as any athlete that I have been around, at any sport or any level. The nice thing about that is it brings my work ethic to another level."
Junior catcher Luke Maile on Williams

A native of Knoxville, Tenn., Williams could have signed and began his professional career or he could elect to return for his senior season, improve his draft status and help the Wildcats complete some unfinished business.

Regarded as one of the top defensive backstops in college baseball, Williams became UK's biggest recruit during the offseason, helping solidify the UK defense and form a dynamic offensive catching tandem with UK junior Luke Maile, who led UK with nine homers in 2011.

"It helps the team greatly," Williams said about the two-headed catching tandem. "We are both really good friends. We have different personalities and leadership styles which is a tremendous asset in how we relate to the team and the pitching staff. We have the ability to move between different positions which creates some versatility. Plus, it really will help keep us fresh so we can continue to produce offensively through the grind of a college season behind the plate."

A 6-foot-2, 220-pound strong-armed and physical catcher, Williams returns after a strong junior season that saw him make 47 starts, bat .264 (46-for-174) and slug seven homers. A key member of UK's school-record fourth-ranked recruiting class in 2008 out of Farragut High School, Williams was a high school All-American.

"We are very pleased that Mike has elected to return to school for his senior season," UK head coach Gary Henderson said. "Mike has meant a lot to our program over the last few years and as a junior he really started to progress offensively and defensively. His decision to return to school will help him continue to develop in the best league in college baseball, will help him finish his degree and will help further his development for professional baseball."

After coming to UK, Williams split time with incumbent starter Marcus Nidiffer in 2009 and 2010, before he joined Maile to form the best two-headed catching tandem in college baseball. A physical and strong right-handed hitter, Williams boasts potential as a power bat and as a lock-down defender.

As a freshman, Williams was thrust into playing time behind the veteran Nidiffer. He played in 15 games with seven starts while he learned to cope with the challenges of playing in the SEC, both offensively and defensively. During his sophomore campaign, Williams played in 16 games with nine starts, batting .241 while helping spell Nidiffer and Maile.

As a draft eligible junior in 2011, Williams solidified himself as one of the top defenders in the nation and as an offensively productive catcher. In addition to his offensive success, Williams ranked among the Southeastern Conference leaders in putouts, pickoffs and runners caught stealing.

During the summer, despite negotiating with the Giants as a late-round draft pick, Williams appeared in the Northwoods League, ranking among Perfect Game USA's top prospects in the circuit.

Williams' decision to return for his senior season is not an unprecedented one for Henderson, who has seen eight UK players drafted as a junior and elect to return to school for their senior seasons since 2007. Among the players who have improved their draft positions by returning to UK include MLB outfielder Collin Cowgill (29th round in 2007, fifth round in 2008), Sawyer Carroll (18th round in 2007, third round in 2008), Scott Green (15th round in 2007, third round in 2008), Taylor Black (28th round in 2010, 16th round in 2011), Chris Rusin (23rd round in 2008, fourth round in 2009) and Sean Coughlin (42nd round in 2006, 13th round in 2007).

Not only is Williams focused on improving his baseball skills for the next level, but finishing his college degree is a top priority.

"It is always a big deal to get a college degree, because you never know when your baseball career could end," Williams said. "It is always a big thing because like that commercial says for the NCAA, everyone is not going to be a pro athlete so you have to have a degree and have that higher education. It is certainly a goal of mine to get my degree so I am excited to get closer to that this year."
No one appreciates the talented catchers the Wildcats boast more than their pitching staff.

"There is no better feeling for a pitcher when you have a catcher that knows what they are doing," UK sophomore starter Corey Littrell said. "Both Mike and Luke, they really know what they are doing. You have confidence in them. You know you can throw a 0-2 curveball in the dirt with a runner on third base and they are going to block it. If a runner steals, you pretty much know they are going to be out because they have such good and accurate arms. They have that leadership, that presence about them that you can just tell they get it. It makes you feel good on the mound."

"We are very fortunate to have those two," UK junior weekend starter Taylor Rogers said. "Even playing up in the Cape (Cod League) this summer you get to see just how lucky we are to have Mike and Luke behind the plate. With both of them back there you feel great, they are tremendous players offensively and defensively and that is a huge boost to a pitching staff."

With a team boasting a bevy of talent in the field and on the mound, including several fresh faces and young arms, Williams will have to step into a vocal and physical leadership role, one his is excited to embrace as a senior.

"Being a leader you have to be outside of yourself," Williams said. "Even when you are struggling personally and individually, you still have to have the strength to help other people out even when you are not doing good. You just have to show people how to work hard, be humble and be accountable for their actions and what they do. You learn that through life as you go along. But the older you are and the more experience you have the more people look up to you because you have been there, you have done it and you have experienced it."

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