DES ARC -- Chris Brown wholeheartedly believed he had something special in Makenzie Williams long before he ever coached a game at Des Arc.
Brown was the head girls basketball coach at Lonoke for four years before coming to Des Arc last summer. But he got a glimpse of what one of the Lady Eagles' brightest young talents could do months earlier when he brought the Lady Jackrabbits to Prairie County for a nonconference game.
"It was a really good battle we had," Brown said in October during the Arkansas High School Basketball Media Day event. "They ended up winning unfortunately."
That Des Arc team, which was heavy with seniors, pulled out an 80-76 victory on that day in early February. But Williams, then a freshman, contributed in a variety of ways and finished with 25 points. When Brown took over the Lady Eagles' program five months later, the initial peek he got of Williams was nothing compared to what he eventually got to see on a daily basis.
"Believe me when I tell you, she's just amazing," he said. "To say she's special isn't really doing her justice. Super strong kid, works extremely hard, does everything.
"Cheer, track, basketball, softball ... if it's a girls sport here, she does it. She does everything at a high level, and it shows, especially out here on the court."
There's been no such thing as a sophomore jinx for Williams, who's blossomed into one of Arkansas' top players in her class.
The 5-6 combo guard leads in just about every statistical category for Des Arc (15-9), which is gearing up for what it hopes will be a memorable postseason run after going through a few tough, saddening and tragic moments.
The Lady Eagles went 18-7 last season and reached the quarterfinals of the Class 2A state tournament before losing to eventual runner-up Conway Christian. Despite losing a lot from that crew, Des Arc had high hopes for the 2023-24 season. A strong sophomore class, coupled with a first-year coach that brought a freshness to the team, was intriguing until adversity hit.
"At the beginning of the year, we were really hyped up for the season and ready," said Williams, who's averaging 17 points, 8 rebounds, 3 steals and 3 assists per game. "We had our first game against a bigger school, but that kind of tore us down a little bit. I mean, we got crushed. And one of our teammates tore her ACL, too.
"That was tough for us because we basically had to revisit the whole process again. We kind of had are hopes dashed a little."
Brown mentioned during the media day event that he was looking for big things from Elena Fuentes, a 5-6 senior foreign exchange student who'd played on Spain's national team. Her addition was expected to boost Des Arc's backcourt, particularly because of her dribbling and scoring ability. However, she went down three minutes into a scrimmage game against Heber Springs and was lost for the year.
"It was like, 'Oh God, that's about to put a major damper on our season,' " Brown said. "She could score at all three levels, she could handle the basketball. When that happened, we were extremely worried about how the season was going to go. We lost a starter, lost a body that we expected to have. ... It was tough.
"On top of that, we had a kid get a concussion in Game 2 and had a player dislocate a kneecap in Game 5. I mean, we got our butts kicked in a few of the first games because we were trying to re-figure out positions. We moved people around, the rotations changed."
The Lady Eagles were essentially down three key players right out the gate, and that wasn't exactly an ideal situation to be in, particularly with a tough schedule on deck.
"But to be honest, [Makenzie] just put us on her back," Brown said. "We're in a great position because of her and her teammates. All of those girls have played really, really well. But without her, we'd be in a lot of trouble."
Williams has had several big games this season, from scoring 30 points in a road win at Class 3A Harrisburg on Dec. 21 to posting 26 points, 18 rebounds and 4 steals eight days later to help Des Arc beat Cross County. She's had other big performances as well, but what's made all of those outings even more incredible than what they are is because of the harrowing ordeals that Williams has had to endure.
On July 1, her father, Justin Williams, was killed in a shooting in his hometown of England.
"It was really hard at first," Makenzie Williams said. "Over the summer, I didn't play AAU basketball, and with my dad, he had gotten me a trainer and worked out with me. So I'd really just gotten used to just working out with him. When [the shooting] happened, it just started to kind of go downhill.
"And of course, with that kind of loss, you really don't want to do things, especially the things that I did with him. It was really hard."
The heartbreak didn't end there for her because less than a month after the death of her father, her grandfather, Demetress Williams Sr., died. Those events would be gripping for anyone, let alone a high school sophomore.
"We were worried about her because it happened back-to-back," Brown said. "I was thinking that she was actually going to shut it down and not play sports this year. It was really devastating for her and her family, and we all just wanted to be there for her.
"But she's got such a great mom who's just super strong. She held that family together, and that community really just rallied around her."
Williams, though, did manage to get through those difficult stretches and found her way back to athletics where she's found a renewed motivation -- whether directly or indirectly.
"Coach Brown talked to be and let me have some time off, really just to get my mind together," she said. "I've had losses before and went back into sports, but I've got the mindset that the last thing they would want me to do is quit. So I was like, 'You know what? I have to keep going.' I have to keep pushing because that's what they would want me to do."
What Williams has been able to do is help keep the Lady Eagles among the elite in Class 2A. There have only been three teams that have beaten them since Nov. 29. Bradford and Barton have each beaten Des Arc twice during that stretch. The other is South Side Bee Branch, which earned a decision during the regular-season finale Friday.
Outside of those two, the Lady Eagles have been dominant. Even in their two close losses to Barton, ranked No. 6 in Class 2A, they've held their own.
"[Ryan] Koerdt is my boy over there at Barton," Brown said, referring to the Lady Bears' first-year coach. "We've had a couple of battles this year, and it sucks that we haven't been at full strength. The last time we played them, we're down one in the fourth quarter, and [Da'mya Wilson] decides to go nuts for them.
"She hits 3 threes in a row from what would be the volleyball line if we had a volleyball line. That broke our backs, but we battled them."
Brown said he is hoping to get another crack at Barton during next week's conference tournament. If the two teams can advance to the final, there's no question who he'll be leaning on to try to help his Lady Eagles get over the hump.
Either way, Williams said she believes they'll go out and give everything they have.
"Coach Brown is definitely going to make sure we're conditioned," she said with a laugh. "That's what we need most of the time. With him being the new coach, it was kind of like an observation season going in just to see what we need to work on, what we need to do for next year.
"But now, I think we'll be working on even more the further we go this year. I think if we can play the same way we played against Harrisburg and even against Barton, we have the ability to go pretty far."
Williams at a glance
SCHOOL Des Arc
NOTEWORTHY Nearly had a triple-double on Feb. 6 against Brinkley when she finished with 14 points, 11 rebounds and 9 assists. … Had 30 points, 15 rebounds and 5 assists against Harrisburg. … Was an all-conference pick in both basketball and softball last season. … Voted the team's best defender as a freshman.
WHAT THEY'RE SAYING ABOUT WILLIAMS "She has pride in everything she does. She has pride on the cheer squad, she has pride on the basketball court, she's got pride on the softball field, she's got pride on the track. She's got pride in her teammates, in her community. … When you have a kid that has pride, it shows. And with Makenzie, she doesn't give up." – Des Arc girls basketball Coach Chris Brown