In one season, Chris Ward has gone from banished player to a role model on and off the court for the Kickapoo Chiefs.
The senior power forward is a big reason why the Chiefs are in Saturday night’s Class 5 state quarterfinal against Columbia Hickman. Ward leads the Chiefs in scoring and rebounding, but it’s what he’s done away from basketball that’s mattered most, said Kickapoo coach Dick Rippee.
“It’s gone hand-in-hand. He’s improved as a person, which has improved his work ethic and the kind of player he is,” Rippee said.
A year ago, Ward was dismissed from the team without about three weeks left in the season.
“It was arguments and selfish acts on my part,” Ward said. “I realized that it’s more about the team being first. The team can get you farther than you can.”
The Chiefs ended last season knowing they’d lose the program’s all-time leading scorer, Ryan Rippee. Dick Rippee knew Ward could help replace much of that scoring loss, but said the 6-foot-5, 245-pound senior needed to have a better attitude and commitment.
"It hasn't been me. Chris has been the one deciding he's going to change. He stopped just thinking about himself and thought about what he owes to his teammates and what he owes to our younger players as far as being an example. It's been an awesome thing to watch and experience."
Ward re-dedicated himself to the team, dropping over 30 pounds in preparation for his senior season.
Kickapoo is glad to have him back.
The Chiefs started the season 4-3, but have gone 18-3 overall since the calendar turned to 2013. Their 22-6 mark includes a blowout district-championship win over Nixa and a 31-30 sectional win over Willard March 6.
Ward averages nearly 15 points and just over eight rebounds per game. Dick Rippee said he’s used Ward’s growth as an example for younger players to emulate.
"Everyone knows me and coach Rippee didn't get along too well last year," said Ward, who spoke to elementary school kids the day after Kickapoo beat Willard. "It could've ended in a better way. Now, it can't end in a better way. We're doing great now."