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Fort Bend Elkins sophomore Braylon Payne.
It’s not easy to make Elkins baseball history.
The Knights are one of the more distinguished programs in the state with a national championship, three state championships and 12 district titles. Thousands and thousands of great players have worn the blue and gold, including former Major League Baseball players like Matt Carpenter, James Loney and Kip Wells.
And yet sophomore Braylon Payne already has his name in Knights lore. Payne set the program single-season mark in stolen bases with 29, and counting, after stealing second and third against Fort Bend Austin on April 29.
“I feel honored that I accomplished it as a sophomore, especially with the talent that has come through Elkins throughout the years,” Payne said.
Payne is a meticulous student of the game. Take stealing bases, for instance. His work starts pregame when he studies the catcher, taking mental notes of arm strength and accuracy. He then reviews the pitcher, figuring out tendencies and pickoffs.
“And then, as soon as I see a twitch during the game, I go,” Payne said.
However, Payne is much more than a specialist. He is one of the more promising talents in the Class of 2024.
This season, Payne is hitting .446 with a .504 on-base percentage for the 19-9-1 playoff-bound Knights. He leads the Knights in RBIs (27) and hits (45) and has four home runs and five triples.
“I see myself as a true five-tool player who can impact the game in any aspect,” Payne said.
The young man doesn’t lack confidence, and rightfully so.
Payne spoke more with VYPE.
VYPE: How long have you been playing baseball, and what is it about the game you love?
PAYNE: I started playing baseball at the age of 4 and my parents got me into it. I’ve loved it ever since.
VYPE: Are there any players you look up to or admire?
PAYNE: Ken Griffey Jr., because I feel like my skill set mirrors his. I feel that my combination of power and speed, along with the fundamentals of my swing, resembles his game.
VYPE: You played varsity as a freshman last year. What did you learn from that year and how did you build on it going into this season?
PAYNE: Last year, I had trouble adapting to the competition, but over the past year I’ve worked on my craft and the results have been promising. I struggled with confidence and my mindset was off. Gaining confidence over the summer really helped me transition into this season.
VYPE: What is something people don’t know about you?
PAYNE: A lot of people don’t know I’m a fisherman. I started fishing two years ago and have competed with others for the biggest and most fish. Me and my friends have a league called ‘Sheisty Bros.’ and we compete weekly with each other.
VYPE: You guys are headed to the playoffs. What is the mindset like as you all go into the postseason?
PAYNE: Having an underdog mentality from here on out and staying together as a team.
Hightower senior guard Aaron Williams Jr.
Aaron Williams Jr. heard the murmurs. They weren’t loud, but they weren’t quiet, either.
After star guard Bryce Griggs elected to bypass his senior season at Hightower in August to turn pro, Williams, a senior guard, was aware of what was being said of the Hurricanes’ chances for the upcoming year.
“Most people thought that we weren’t going to be a top team or good enough because Bryce was leaving. I took that personal,” Williams said. “I thought it was a good opportunity for me to take over the team. I took that leadership role and doing whatever I could accomplish to try and get us to state this year.”
Griggs was an elite talent for the Hurricanes, arguably the best player in the Greater Houston area for the class of 2022. But Hightower hasn’t skipped a beat in his absence, going 12-7 against a demanding schedule and in contention for yet another district championship.
One of the reasons Hightower remains a team to beat is Williams, a 6-foot-3, 188-pound gifted scorer and shooter averaging 18.9 points, 4.9 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 1.6 steals per game. Williams is shooting 47 percent overall, including 44 percent on 6.6 3-point attempts per game.
He is the headliner of a marquee program after averaging 9.6 points per game last year in a supporting role to Griggs.
“I’m not surprised at all,” Williams said. “I was playing behind a guy like Bryce, and people didn’t really know or get to see what I can do. This is all the work I’ve been putting in over the years. It’s finally showing. People didn’t actually believe me, but now I get to showcase my talent.”
Aaron Williams #3 Hightower vs Elkins 11.18.21 Senior Szn
Williams’ play is drawing significant attention in recruiting circles. He is talking to college coaches almost daily every week, and he currently holds six scholarship offers to play at the next level. His dream school is UCLA.
“It’s been amazing,” Williams said. “I’ve been blessed. It’s a lot to balance, but it’s fun.”
Williams’ ascension started when he was seven years old, playing for the Stafford Youth Basketball Association. He didn’t enjoy basketball then. He often left games frustrated and angry.
“I used to always get the ball stolen from me and I’d always be mad,” Williams said. “My dad told me if I wanted to get better, I’d have to be in the gym and work every day and be consistent with it.”
So, that’s what Williams did. He started getting up at 4:30 every morning to do workouts with his dad, Aaron Sr., at a local park, focusing on shooting and dribbling fundamentals. He got up 500 shots every morning before going to school.
During the summers, Williams said he’d put up 2,000-3,000 shots daily. He wasn’t born a sharpshooter. He had to work tirelessly at it.
“My success is coming from my younger days,” Williams said. “Everything people are seeing now are things I’ve been working on since I was little.”
Williams, a four-year varsity letterman, has scored 20 or more points in a game eight times in 17 games this season. His shooting prowess is impressive. His mechanics are textbook and his range is substantial.
But Williams has worked diligently to become more than just a specialist. Last year, 3-pointers accounted for 51.4 percent of his total shot attempts. This year, they account for 42.7 percent.
“I’m getting to the basket more,” said Williams, who added 10 pounds of muscle over the offseason to better prepare himself for more forays to the rim. “That’s what I’ve really been working on the past year and all through summer ball. A big harp on me coming into this year was I couldn’t get to the basket and all I was was a shooter. But I’m getting to the cup, finishing through contact, stuff like that.”
Hightower senior guard Aaron Williams Jr.Bradley Collier | VYPE Media
Aside from adding another dimension to his game, Williams is also a better leader. Naturally quiet and reserved, he has become more vocal and assertive directing teammates and holding them accountable.
“At first, I was scared, because I don’t like to talk,” Williams said. “But I want to get to the next level, and I know I’ve got to do that. I’ve got to be a leader. Going to state is the only thing I really want. I’ve been there once, my sophomore year. But I want to win it.”
Williams sees no reason why the Hurricanes can’t make it to San Antonio, the site of the state tournament, for the second time in three years. Griggs may be gone, but three Hurricanes average 10 or more points per game (Williams, senior Jacory Chatman at 16.6 points per game and senior Caleb Douglas at 10 points per game), and eight average at least four points per game.
“Last year, everything ran through Bryce,” Williams said. “This year, everybody gets to play and have a feel for the game and do what they do best. Everybody gets to play a role.”
Williams is playing his quite admirably.