Friday, September 5, 2014

Hyper-Intense Ward Molds Westchester's Youth

To see Chris Ward coach is to witness a rare blend of unbridled passion and no-nonsense ferocity engulf a gym.

He's full throttle.

Whether Ward is nursing a 25-point lead or staring down at a 10-point deficit with 58 seconds remaining, the monstrous in-game engine does not dwindle.

He's engaged as ever, schooling you on all the detail.

 He's embedded in every layer of the game, a half-man half-cyborg pacing the sidelines at a nauseating rate.

As furiously intense as they come, Ward's rapid explosions and tameless moxie helps slay bad habits.

The yelling is warranted and productive, regardless of the opinion it may elicit.

Ward will ingrain his philosophies into your brain, staying within a hunter's range of you throughout  the workout.

 Staying on you to box out.

 Imploring you to front big men down low and feed the post.

Demanding you close out on shooters and stymie dribble drive penetration.

The objective is simple....

 Raise one's game up the necessary pegs, rectify and make amendments to those weaknesses.

Propel one's mindful awareness.

Harden up each player's mental toughness.

 Install a level of confidence and accountability, which may have even been discernible by one's mind. Ward's high-octane style is unpredictable, to the point where he's busting out a dance move to illustrate a point.

At the end of these laborious, sweat-soaked days, Ward has his arm around each kid.

Though he may possess the savage in-clinic fierceness of a pitbull, Ward has the unwavering loyalty of a German Shepherd.

 He acknowledges former and current players  not with a "hello" or a dap, but a Tom Konchalski-esque hand shake and a man-sized hug.

He's asking his kids about life off the court. He's touching on the importance of keeping the grades up, living with a sense of urgency on and off the court and defying any limitations.

He's telling these kids why he wants them to get better.

"The truth in the matter is, I do care about these kids tremendously, each and every last one of our players, whether they are eight or in college," said the South Carolina-bred Ward, a Westchester area player development ace.

"I want them to be the best possible people and players they can be."

 Whether it is the go-to superstar or the 14th man trying at all costs to make a 12-man roster, Ward's hounding is unavoidable.

He is demanding. He can yell until his voice is hoarse. His preference is to yell until you get it right.

 He won't fall back on the calming, laissez-faire methods that few coaches can survive with. He's just as hyped and enthused when you prove yourself.

There are built-in high standards that Ward sets, lofty aspirations he burns into each one of his players' brains.

Production rates must soar or you'll be hard-pressed to find Ward appeased.

The militaristic-like zeal will only intensify.

Quitting and taking a play off is frowned upon.

Give less than 100 percent? Anticipate the disapproval of a NAVY SEAL instructor watching one of his trainees hang up the helmet (I know, I know, it's just basketball).

"His intensity is a direct result of his passion, tempered with a desire to see what's best for his student-athlete to succeed," said Keith Fagan, who coached alongside Ward on the AAU circuit nearly a decade ago.

"He wants them to succeed not only on the court, but more importantly in life.  He yells not to scold, but to express the urgency of the words. If it wasn't worth saying he wouldn't say it. He raises his voice because of the intense passion with which he lives his life."

Rewind the clock back to the fall of 2002.

Hastings' then-Athletic Director Drew Wendol was sold on how quickly Ward instilled an around-the-clock program, with extra emphasis on off-season training.

Spindly big men who arrived rough around the edges cultivated a post presence.

Bigs suffering from bouts of offensive ineptitude were molded into dependable role players.

Guards suddenly kicked their habits of over-dribbling, clearing risky passes out of their arsenal.

 Reliable shooters had a green light, with Ward's hyper-intense methods jolting confidence through one-liners and a Southern-branded cocksure mentality.

And so in six months, Hastings' basketball culture underwent an immense transformation.

The end product was a revitalized system, one which saw the program bring alumni from 20 years ago back into the Cochrane Gym.

Even the most un-athletic and disinterested bookworms ditched the library, applying raucous support. It rendered Hastings High one of Section 1's toughest, most unforgivingly hostile proving grounds during that era.

Ward went to immediate work at the state-ranked Class C power, his intent to put basketball on a higher plateau.

George Skrelja, a First Team All-State selection, packed on the muscle necessary to ready himself for a 21 PPG, 21-win season amongst the Section's elite. It was only necessary, as Hastings played as daunting a Class C schedule as there's been.

There was Tuckahoe with Jamal Webb, a First Team All-State selection who torched Hastings for 31 points in a memorable Section 1 semifinal. Webb's buckets binge continued in the championship, as he  piloted Tuckahoe past North Salem and high-volume scoring guard Mike DePaoli in the Section 1 championship.

There was Leake And Watts with buckets-in-bushels scoring guard Darnell Grant and larger-than-life 310-pound Center Jason Coston. There was Woodlands with Justin Dabney and blurring guard Terrell Self. There was athlete-laden Dobbs Ferry, featuring high-scoring guard/forward Kevin Farrington

 The program was a 30-35 points better than where it stands now.

There was talent and fanfare and a potency of depth that hasn't been replicated in 11 years. Division-III players were buried on the depth chart.

Changes were evident across the roster.

One role player, who arrived at Ward's open door summer workouts jarringly out of shape, shed 15 pounds by the time the season came around.

Lighter off his feet and suddenly playing longer minutes without getting fazed, teammates and friends joked that this particular player was "half the man he used to be."

Ward, who seemed hell-bent on changing Hastings' world by the weekend, did more than just coach.

He played some too, jumping in on in-practice scrimmages and drills and putting his left hand to use.

The pass-happy guard seemed hell-bent on proving he's "still got it," repeatedly telling his team "don't get it twisted, I can still play!" after hitting a deep 3-pointer or kicking in an assist.

During one memorable summer practice, on a scorching August afternoon, Ward was going full blast in a 5-on-5 game with his players.

Setting hard picks, diving for loose balls, applying in-your-shoulder defense, pulling up from just a few feet inside half court while sprinkling a little trash talk in there, Ward's youthful appeal for the game was evident.

One perplexed janitor asked an assistant coach, "what school did this new point guard transfer in from?"

The true draw of Ward?  He can welcome in an also-ran and motivate him, imploring him to hustle without a shred of hesitance. Ward can take a dud or mediocre player and make him/her good.

"Coach Ward helped my shot release get much faster and enabled me to shoot off the dribble, which made me more of a threat," said Dominican College guard John Decker, who solidified a 1,000+ point career at Somers High with a 59-point outburst in a 32-minute game.

"He brought me to the next level in every aspect of the game. Coach Ward's passion for the game makes you want to work harder and get better. My biggest difference, from working with him, was being able to put the ball on the floor more and create my own shot."

Decker, who had his fair share of doubters entering his senior season, worked with Ward all four years at Somers High. 

"He took about 25 percent less shots as a senior and still scored at the pace that he did," recalls Ward, his eyes broadening as he illustrates this in a loud, slug-slow Southern tone.

"He was shooting darn near 50 percent."

In a current day universe where self-promotion has become the norm, consider Ward an old soul. 

He's nearly allergic to the internet. Twitter and Facebook are foreign concepts to him. He knows his technological ineptitude won't hamper his ability to tweak one's shot and expand their defensive game.

Ward's fiery motivation is a blast from a previous epoch. When Ward arrived at the doorstep, Section 1 was a hothouse swarming with talent.

The aforementioned Skrelja, Keith Benjamin (Mount Vernon) Dexter Gray (Mount Vernon) Taj Finger (Fox Lane), Dan Gumb (Kennedy Catholic), Jamie Procino (Yorktown) Jason Holmes (Mamaroneck), Mike Kach (Carmel), Quentin Martin (White Plains), and several others were the Section's poster boys.

Ward has expanded his player development program ever since, converting Chris Ward Basketball to the frenzied AAU circuit. 

"As a motivator, there are few if any better than Ward," said Erik Gormley, who was coached by Ward from 8-12th grade and got his coaching teeth cut by inheriting Ward's 14U AAU team.

"Coach Ward knows how to get blood from a stone. He knows how to get the most out of his players at all times. His players constantly give him the utmost attention. I once saw coach Ward coach seven or eight games in a day I think it was. He coached at each level of the program, 14-15-16U and then 3-4 17U games. To me, that showed what he's all about."

A steady evolution remains.

Ward handles recruiting for all of his players, guiding them through what can be an arduous process.

Chris Ward Basketball has become a springboard for NCAA players.

Ward has habitually launched locals to NCAA programs. With his Chris Ward Basketball AAU team, he utilizes solely on his own players. He refuses to recruit or plunge into the murky underworld of the current day grass-roots circuit.

Ward, who holds several clinics and camps at Solaris in Yorktown, became a virtual extension of his own coach while operating offense at South Carolina's Summerville High.

His records intact as Summerville's all-time assists leader, Ward averaged 9.1 dimes to supplement his 11 points per game. He quarterbacked the squad to a school record 19-win season as an All-Region selection. Ward played defensive back in football. He's coached basketball, football and baseball at myriad levels.

And while he keeps tabs on all Section 1 sports as aggressively as anyone in the land, it's clear hoops is his labor of love.

He describes "desire, hard work and discipline" as the building blocks of his system.

"He knows who to kick and who to hug," said Fagan, now an assistant football coach at New Rochelle and a member of Hastings and Western New England College's Hall of Fame. 

"Coach Ward epitomizes everything you ask for in a coach. He is equally well versed in the X's and O's as well as the psychology it takes to create winning basketball. I'm a better coach just from being around him."

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