Wheatland-Chili soccer coach retiring after 39 years
After 550 wins, three state championships and nine Section V titles, coach Gary Ward is hanging up the clipboard for good.
For the last 39 years, Ward coached the girls soccer team at Wheatland-Chili High School.
When he first started coaching the varsity team in 1982, he was the second 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 said. “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.”
The 2020 team is as resilient as any team Ward has seen in his 39 years due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic kept people from gathering in groups, so the team had few opportunities to train, practice and bond as a team. Injuries took a toll and players were required to wear masks during practices and games.
“Our kids have been great,” Ward said. 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.”
When asked to pick the most memorable moment of his career, 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 state championships in 1991 and 2016.
Despite his record of success, Ward makes it clear that winning isn’t everything.
“I never set out to worry about winning,” he said. “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.
“To me, coaching is teaching … We’re trying to use [soccer] as a vehicle to help our kids grow and be good people.”
Abby Jones, who played for Ward in 1988-91 and led the team to a state championship, said Ward was “always so positive, guiding everyone and bringing out the best in us. 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,” said Jill Farrell, a former player and 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.”
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 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 athletic director Todd Grimes. “We’ve got some great young kids on the team that I think are going to be great players.”