December 8, 2016

Male athlete of the year: The basketball record breaker

When Hunter Ward arrived at Webster in 2013 after a few years of post-high school soul searching, it was a long-time wish fulfilled for Head Men’s Basketball Coach Chris Bunch. Bunch was recruiting one of Ward’s opponents in a Kirkwood High School basketball game when he saw Ward for the first time, and followed his career thereafter.

“I initially thought, ‘He’ll go somewhere higher than Webster,’” Bunch said. “One of my assistant coaches was acquaintances with him and told me that Hunter Ward might be interested in coming here, and I said ‘I’d love to have him, but surely somebody else will offer him a scholarship.’”

Ward initially committed to a junior college powerhouse with the hopes of transferring to a Division I or II school. However, he said he experienced burnout before the school year even started, spent over a year in limbo due to NCAA transfer regulations, and even considered quitting the game entirely. Ultimately, he decided against leaving the game behind, and instead called Webster Assistant Coach Chris O’Connell.

“I’ve known coach O’Connell since I was in youth basketball,” Ward said. “So when he said they’d love to have me, I knew it would be a fit. When all was said and done, I was a 21-year-old freshman and a Gorlok, of all things. It was the last thing I expected, but I’d say it’s worked out.”

Several years later Ward, now a junior, is coming off one of the strongest statistical seasons in Webster basketball history. Ward averaged 16.2 points, 8.4 rebounds, and 3.5 assists per game, all improvements over the previous season and was the first player in SLIAC history to be top 10 in each category. Ward downplayed the numbers as part of a natural progression.

“It was just part of maturing,” Ward said. “The first couple of years, we had big Kevin Miller and Ahmad Smith, and so I just kind of played my role, but when they left I knew what was expected of me, and I knew I needed to step up.”

Despite Ward’s individual success, Webster could not replicate the success of previous years, finishing 13-12 and missing out on the SLIAC postseason tournament for the first time in Bunch’s tenure. Ward has already shifted his focus toward improving so that next season does not end the same way.

“Individually, I know I need to get stronger physically,” Ward said. “That’s something coaches have been saying to me since middle school. For the team, I need to keep improving as a leader and be another coach on the floor. I want to contribute in as many ways as I can, night in and night out.”

Bunch said he agrees and the well-roundedness of Ward’s game has not gone unnoticed.

“The all-around contribution is what makes him who he is as a player,” Bunch said. “He can hit four or five threes in a row. He can catch a missed layup in transition and dunk it. He can even make all the ESPN plays. I have no doubt that he could score a lot more if he decided to. But it’s the assists, the steals, the defensive effort and the intangibles that make him so hard to take out of the game.”

Even if Ward fails to improve on the statistical benchmarks he set this season, merely staying consistent could secure his place among all-time Webster greats. Provided a productive senior season, Ward stands to finish in the top five in Gorlok history in points, rebounds, assists, and steals.

“He’s all over the record books already,” Bunch said. “If he has another year like this year, he’s going to be number one or two or three in just about everything. He has a chance to be, at least statistically, the best all-around player in school history.”

Ward said the significance is not lost on him, but that he prefers a different form of motivation going into next season.

“It would be cool if all the individual stuff takes care of itself,” Ward said. “But I wouldn’t like it as much if we go 13-12 again. If we go 22-6 and get to go to the NCAA tournament, that would be something. SLIAC teams go to the tournament and lose in the first round every year. We want to be the team that makes the tournament and gets that win. That’s goal number one.”

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