Bob Ward started coaching high school basketball at the lower levels in the late 1970s, and the basketball lifer has hardly come up for air since.
Ward did, though, have a decade-long hiatus from the head coaching ranks before taking over at St. Francis two years ago. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that some of Ward’s finest handiwork has come after the break.
Having taken the Spartans to an IHSA Class 3A supersectional this season after guiding St. Francis to a sectional final during his debut year, Ward is 2 for 2 in claiming Kane County Chronicle Boys Basketball Coach of the Year honors.
Ward said “a couple health blips” contributed to him stepping down as head coach at Wheaton North in 2000, and he spent most of the next decade assisting at various levels of the Falcons’ program under current Batavia coach and close friend Jim Nazos.
While returning to his roots as an assistant, Ward said he took “mental notes” of what he might do differently if he had another chance as a head coach after previous stops at Spring Valley Hall, Round Lake and Wheaton North.
“I just think my 10 years off made me grow in a lot of different ways, as an Xs and Os guy, and as a people guy,” Ward said.
Whatever adjustments he’s made, the latest incarnation of Ward as a head coach has yielded blockbuster results for the Spartans, who have won 20 or more games and regional titles back-to-back for the first time in program history.
This year’s 22-8 squad was less than two minutes from trekking to Peoria, taking a 45-44 lead with 1:53 to go against Bartonville Limestone on Tuesday at the NIU Supersectional before falling to the Rockets, 55-50.
St. Francis won four hotly contested postseason games to earn the supersectional berth, eliminating Kaneland, Aurora Central Catholic, Woodstock and Rockford Lutheran. Spartans senior guard Andrew Kimball said the resourceful Ward had St. Francis locked in for each opponent.
“He has connections to everybody,” Kimball said. “He gets scouts from everyone. He knows what the game plan is, and every practice, he brings it, and he forces us to make ourselves better in practice every day. He really pushes you, and that’s what makes you great.”
The Spartans’ extended run was hard to forecast leading up to the season (last year’s star, Ryan Coyle, had graduated) and as recently as a few weeks ago, considering St. Francis struggled in February, including consecutive losses to Immaculate Conception and Wheaton Academy to close the regular season.
“Ultimately it’s the kids that right the ship, and these kids did,” Ward said.
But Ward, known for his man-to-man defensive coaching prowess, certainly played his part.
Ward likes the foundation being laid in the program, but replacing an all-senior starting lineup – Tim Zettinger, Jason Pisarski, Matt Bonner, Kevin McShea and Kimball – will be a heavy-duty challenge, even for a coach who seems to be aging like fine wine.
“It was an honor to coach these kids,” Ward said. “I’ll never forget this group. I’ll never forget this run. This is the type of group that if we hadn’t made a run, I’d feel the same way. It’d be an honor. They’re just that good of kids.”