By Bill Foley
Wednesday was kind of a bittersweet day for Butte High boys’ soccer coach Eric Zahler.
But it was definitely more sweet than bitter.
Zahler sat by, watching proudly, as Bulldog senior Travis Williams signed a letter of intent to play soccer at North Idaho College. He signed during a brief after-school ceremony at the Ross J. Richardson Gymnasium.
While Zahler was definitely sad to think about losing Williams’ talent, the coach knew Wednesday was a big day for the program.
“We’re going to miss him,” Zahler said of the 6-foot-4 middle defender. “You just don’t replace a Travis Williams. You just don’t replace him. You’ve got guys who step up and play the position, but you lose a lot of athleticism; you lose a leader. He’s our emotional engine on the field.”
Williams, who was a captain during his senior season, said he will play the same position for coach Ken Thompson at North Idaho College, which is a two-year school on the lake in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho.
“I’m glad to just still be able to play,” Williams said. “I always like to try to push myself higher, so I like going against higher competition.”
Williams scored three goals — two on headers — to help lead the Bulldogs to the Class AA State tournament in Kalispell.
“He was our most dangers threat on corner kicks,” Zahler said. “You put him and Brock Powell inside the six on a goalie, that’s intimidating. It worked to our advantage this year.”
The trip to state was the second for Williams, a four-year letterman for the Bulldog soccer team.
“I was glad we made it there,” Williams said of playing at state. “It definitely helped make the senior year a lot better.”
Williams, who is currently playing for the Butte Soccer Club’s U-18 team, also lettered three years for the Butte High boys’ basketball team.
He wasn’t a big scorer, but he was a rebounder and a beast on the defensive end for the Bulldogs.
Butte High coach Luke Powers said Williams is the best defender in the state.
Williams could have looked to play basketball in college. He might have even been able to play football — despite not playing in high school.
“I enjoyed playing it, but I didn’t really think about going further than high school,” Williams said of playing basketbll. “I was a pretty good defender. I always had to guard the toughest guys out there.”
Zahler said Williams will be a good fit for the Cardinals, who went 7-9-4 overall and 7-6-2 in Scenic West Athletic Conference last season.
“I talked to Ken, their coach there, a couple of times, and they’re just excited about him in general,” Zahler said. “He likes his athleticism. He likes his IQ on the field. Ken is really excited.”
Williams is the fourth player to sign to play college soccer in the six years Zahler has been in charge of the boys’ program. He is the second this year.
Zach Archibald recently signed with the Colorado School of Mines. Classmate Brock Powell could also sign to play basketball or soccer soon, as well.
“It just shows the growth of the program,” Zahler said. “I truly believe that.”
Williams, the son of John and Tricia Williams of Butte, said he is going to study computer science at NIC.
“But after I graduate there, I’m probably going to come back and become a lineman out at Highlands (College),” Williams said. “That’s what I really want to do.”
Zahler interrupted, saying that he thinks Williams will likely have an opportunity to join a four-year school once he is done playing in Coeur d’Alene.
In the coaches’ eye, Williams is that good, and that is what makes it so hard to see him leave.
“What’s sad is that for six years I’ve always had a Williams on the field,” Zahler said, referring the Travis’ brother Jacob. “It’s sad, but he’s moving forward. We’re moving forward, and the best of luck to him and us.
“This is sweet,” the coach added. “I love this. Getting kids to go on and play college athletics, that’s fantastic.”