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Girls Soccer Coach Gary Ward to Retire

After 550 wins, three State Championships, nine Section V Titles, and hundreds of lives impacted, Coach Gary Ward is hanging up the clipboard for good. For the last 39 years, Ward has coached the Girls soccer team at Wheatland-Chili, guiding the Wildcats to incredible heights and sustained success. Now, as he prepares to retire, he has an opportunity to reflect on his career and how far the game has come.

 

 NYS Championship

 

 

A Changed Landscape

 

When he first started coaching the varsity team in 1982, he was only the 2nd Girls Soccer coach at Wheatland-Chili. Six years had passed since Title IX ensured equal access to opportunities for female athletes, but legal access didn’t always translate immediately to tangible access. “The early kids were real pioneers and they took some risks,” Ward says. “We had to fight for field time, we had to fight for equal facilities and participation... They knew how lucky they were to be playing.”

 

Over the years, the Girls Soccer program improved dramatically. With increased access to fields and facilities, improved training methods, and consistent offseason playing time, the game became much more competitive. Through his coaching career, Ward was continuously impressed by the increased strength, speed, and skills of the female athletes.

 

The Women’s Game is also much more popular now, due in large part to the success of the Women’s National Team and the strength of college programs across the country. Former player and current Assistant Coach Jen Quinn, who is also Ward’s daughter, credited this visibility with the popularity of the sport. “There are a lot more role models for young girls to look up to – aspire to – and work towards. In the 80s, we could barely even watch the Men’s National Team, let alone the Women’s Team or college teams.”

 

But with that visibility comes added pressure. “It’s so hard to take the pressure off the kids now, because information is so accessible,” Quinn added. “They put so much pressure on themselves.”

 

The 2020 team is as resilient as any Ward has seen in his 39 years, due to the challenges resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. Like every other facet of society, the pandemic has kept people from gathering in groups, so the team has had few opportunities to train, practice, and even bond together as a team. Injuries took a toll this season, and despite requirements that players must wear masks during practices and games, Ward says proudly that “our kids have been great. They haven’t complained. We made it clear what the mask rule is and they didn’t bat an eye. I couldn’t say more about them.”

 

halftime speech

 

 

Looking Back

 

When asked to pick just one moment out of his celebrated career that stands out, Ward struggled. “There were so many highlights, and so many great kids,” he said. “I guess one of the most exciting moments would have to be the 2017 State Championship,” which the Wildcats won on a Golden Goal after double-overtime. He also pointed to the other two State Championships in 1991 and 2016 as well.

 

Despite his record of success, Ward makes very clear that winning isn’t everything. His coaching philosophy is actually quite simple: “I never set out to worry about winning. We try to teach them how to play and approach the game properly. What we say is ‘Go out and give it your best, play the way you’ve been taught, and at the end of the day we’ll look at the scoreboard to see who won.’ We try to take the pressure off the kids… We want to teach them to compete in a healthy way.”

 

He emphasized that he never saw himself as solely a soccer coach, either. “To me, coaching is teaching… We’re trying to use [soccer] as a vehicle to help our kids grow and be good people.”

 

His players saw that principle firsthand. Abby Jones played for Ward from 1988-1991 and led the team to a New York State Championship Title in 1991. “He was always so positive, guiding everyone, and brought out the best in us,” Jones said. “The lessons he taught on the field were so relevant in life… He improved your game, certainly, but he also improved your life.”

 

“He was very compassionate and caring for his players, above and beyond coaching on the field,” recalled Jill Farrell, former player in the 1980s and a current kindergarten teacher at T.J. Connor Elementary School. “A lot of us had him as a teacher too and he wanted to make sure we were doing well in our studies. He was always really supportive.”

 

This season, Ward coached Farrell’s daughter – not the first time he has coached a second generation player. “It was cool to see it come full circle,” Farrell said. “I’m glad that they had that opportunity to play together.” She humorously recalled how earlier this year, her daughter came home after the practice in which Coach Ward finally referred to her by her mother’s name. “He finally did it! He called me Jill!” her daughter had laughed.

 

The impact he has had on players, parents, and the community is unmatched. He has stayed close with countless individuals over the years. For Jones, when she lost family members, Coach Ward was right there, attending the funeral, still serving as a shoulder to lean on. “I hope he knows how many people love him and cherish him.”

 

2016 State Championship

 

 

Highlight of a Lifetime

 

After nearly four decades, Ward is stepping away from the sport that has come to define his career. He’s looking forward to spending time with his wife, JoAnn, and hopefully getting back to showing his horses. He plans to continue attending Wheatland-Chili soccer games as a spectator. “I hope I get a free pass,” he joked to Todd Grimes, the Wheatland-Chili Athletic Director. “We’ve got some great young kids on the team that I think are going to be great players.”

 

Why now? Ward says that after 39 years of coaching and 50 years of teaching, it’s time. He’s had a great career, and as much as he’ll miss it, sometimes you have to move on. But when he reflects on his coaching career, he doesn’t hesitate. “This has been one of the highlights of my life. Man, it was a ride.”

 

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by Jordan Kirkpatrick

Communication Specialist

Wheatland-Chili Central School District