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Gardner Newman coach treasures dad’s memory

By KEVIN ECKLEBERRY

Daily News

It’s a basketball season that holds a special and treasured place in Dustin Ward’s heart and memory.

During the 2012-2013 basketball season, Ward was able to coach alongside his father Gary Ward on the boys’ junior-varsity team at Troup High.

Ward, who was a standout student-athlete at Troup, had recently graduated from Concordia College, and he returned to his alma mater to begin his coaching career.

One of his mentors was his father, who graduated from Troup himself before embarking on a teaching and coaching career that lasted for more than three decades.

“My first year at Troup in 2013, we had a chance to tag-team the JV and ninth-grade boys,” Dustin Ward said. “That was a good and fun experience. We always joked and talked about how we were going to coach together. So we did get a chance to do that. My second year is when he decided he wanted to coach varsity girls, so he handed the JV program down to me.”

Sadly, Gary Ward died in 2014, but his memory lives on, and his son continues to lean on his beloved father for strength and guidance.

Ward is in his third season as the head boys’ basketball coach at Gardner Newman Middle School, and he has led the team to an 8-1 record this season.

Ward sometimes gets anxious on game days, and a visit with his father is a sure way to settle his nerves and get his mind right.

“I try to keep him with me at all times,” Ward said. “Game day, I like to try to go out and sit by his grave before the game. That kind of calms me. I still get nervous. It could be the 20th game of the year, but I still get nervous. When I go out there and talk to him, it’s like I’m at peace, and I’m ready to go.”

Another man who strongly influenced Ward was his high-school basketball coach Thermond Billingslea, who won more than 500 games during his long and distinguished career.

“I try to take a little bit of my dad, and a little bit of coach Billingslea, and even a little bit of what coach (Mark) Veal is doing at the high school,” Ward said. “I use that.”

Another inspiration for Ward is a fallen former teammate, Dazman Anderson, who was tragically shot and killed in October of 2005 during the middle of Troup’s football season.

Ward and Anderson were both juniors on that team in 2005, and Ward remembers the selflesness of his teammate.

“I tell the kids about him,” Ward said. “I played the quarterback position, and it was because of him being unselfish at that age. He said I’m going to play college football, but I’m not going to be a quarterback. He said you do it. Me and Demetrius Goode will be the running backs. It’s very seldom that you’ll see a kid that’ll say hey, I’m going to put my pride to the side, and we’re going to be a better team if I’m at running back.”

Ward, recalling what he’s learned from former coaches and teammates over the years, has guided Gardner Newman to a stellar season, with its only loss coming to South Girard, and it has beaten cross-town rivals Callaway Middle and Long Cane.

During Ward’s first season at Gardner Newman the team won the county championship, and it finished second last year.

“With it being year three, the kids for the most part know what we expect as a coaching staff,” Ward said. “They know what we expect of them as far as playing team ball.”

Many of the players on this team were on the court last season for the loss to Callaway Middle in the league-championship game.

“We went to the championship last year, and we have nine of those kids back from that team,” Ward said. “That helps having that experience.”

Ward has embraced the challenge of being a middle-school coach, and he savors a chance to mold players when they’re still young. While it’s always nice to win, Ward understands that developing players, and preparing them to succeed on the court and off, is what his job is all about.

“I really enjoy the middle-school level, and just seeing them grow up,” said Ward, the behavior specialist at Ethel Kight Elementary School. “They come in at these tiny sixth-graders, and they go through growth spurts, and they get a little taller, get stronger and faster.”

Ward has also discovered that the middle-school players are “eager to learn” as they keep an eye on possibly playing in the high-school gym down the road.

“They see the guys in high school, and they want to get to where they are,” Ward said. “They come here, and they want to know what did those guys do? One guy is Garrett Jacobsen. He’s one of the guys I hung my hat on the first year. They see him as a 10th-grader starting on varsity. He works hard. He’s doing the same exact things you’re doing. He worked very hard at it to get to that point where he is now.”

When Ward sees his former players like Jacobsen succeed at LaGrange High, he said “it makes you feel good.”

“We tell them, our job is to prepare them for the next level, and high school is the next level,” Ward added. “Just to see them out there makes you feel good about what we started here.”

Ward has enjoyed coaching alongside Brandon Kelley and Rudra Kissun, who are both LaGrange High graduates, and he values their assistance.

“The biggest thing is, a lot of times people say you do a great job with those kids, but a lot of times it’s them,” Ward said. “My assistant coaches, they don’t get the credit they deserve, because they do a lot, rather it’s working on schemes, or keeping on top of grades, or giving kids’ rides. Whatever the case may be, they’re a big help.”