Belton High School’s Zach Willis grew up with a soccer ball at his feet. He was a lightning-quick outside defender, and he dreamed of turning those talents into a college scholarship one day. Who knows? Perhaps a professional contract, too.
But as his aspirations bloomed, so did his competitiveness. And that created a bit of a hiccup.
“I started to notice that I had too much aggression for soccer,” said Willis, a senior. “There’s a lot of shoving in soccer, and I just took it to a whole new level.”
A friend’s father offered a suggestion: Why not football?
Willis took the advice — reluctantly, he admits — and joined a football team when he was in the seventh grade. The coaches quickly found his position on the field.
“They saw I was fast, so they put me at running back,” Willis recalled.
A perfect fit.
The sport. The position. And his current team.
Five years later, Willis has amassed 1,500 yards and 23 touchdowns in seven games this season — and he has the Belton Pirates on track for their first winning season since 2007.
Belton’s trip to Kearney, 6-1, on Friday will serve as the de facto Suburban Blue Conference championship game. The Pirates are 5-2.
“I viewed these seniors as the class that would get the ball rolling — I just didn’t know when that would be,” Belton coach Todd Vaughn said. “We tell our kids to embrace being uncomfortable and overcome the work it takes to win football games.
“Zach isn’t the only senior who’s done that, but he’s the only one who’s rushed for 1,500 yards and done that.”
Willis has been a true workhorse running back for the Pirates. In the last four games, he’s carried the ball 139 times (34.8 totes per game) and rushed for 967 yards and 19 touchdowns. Belton has won all four games.
It’s a role Willis requested before the season. In a meeting with his teammates and coaches, Willis laid out his plans to never leave the field.
His coach’s response?
“I’m going to hold you to that,” Vaughn said.
Willis has missed only a handful of plays this season — a couple for a cramp in the season opener against Raymore-Peculiar and a few more for equipment issues over the course of the year. That’s it.
The heavy workload doesn’t just come on game days, either. Willis says he tries to take every first-team snap during practice, and then he stays on the field to practice with the second-string offense.
“I try to take all those reps because that’s the same way I’ll be feeling during the game,” he said. “I want to push myself.”
Put even more simply — he wants the ball. All the time.
As Belton trailed by 19 points in the fourth quarter against Raytown South last week, Willis still tugged on Vaughn’s sleeve to remind him not to abandon the running game. Willis ran for two fourth-quarter touchdowns in an impressive come-from-behind win that required overtime.
The coaches describe Willis’ running style as bruising. He can run over a defender and make it look easy, they say. Willis is quick to note that he can also make a guy miss with a quick juke or side-step.
Take a guess at which he prefers.
“Rolling over someone,” Willis said. “It makes for a long night for the defensive players when you do that. And when they’re getting tired, I think I’m just getting started.”