Coming in on the heels of a team that had incredibly won three consecutive Class 7A State championships, the 2013 Bryant Lady Hornets faced a tremendous challenge. The core of those championship teams had graduated and only a few that had been a part of the run remained. There was just one senior coming back.
Expectations remained high, however, even as players were trying to figure out what their roles on the team would be, learning what that entailed, and determining who would lead; indeed, who could lead. And that was beyond the hitting and fielding, pitching and competing. Plus, there was a new crop of freshmen to fold into the team.
It was a rugged season, memories of which no doubt still sting for those involved. The Lady Hornets weren’t able to repeat at State champions. In fact, they wound up not even qualifying for the State Tournament, though it came down to the last week of the season.
But, as the season progressed, certain players started to take on the mantle of leadership. It evolved naturally. It had to. Leaders, after all, are not easy to create. Some players just have that in them.
Among those was the team’s freshman catcher Julie Ward, who had worked her way into being a starter. She has been so ever since — a starter and a leader.
After hitting .300 as a freshman, she became one of the team’s top hitters as a sophomore, hitting over .400 as the Lady Hornets returned to State in 2014. She earned all-conference honors.
Last spring, though her average slumped, she still led the team in runs batted in and continued to lead while continuing her stellar work behind the plate. Along with her play in summer ball, college coaches noticed.
And, on Wednesday, looking forward to her senior season, Ward, the daughter of Patrick and DeAnna Ward, signed a National Letter of Intent to continue her education and softball career at Henderson State University in the fall of 2016.
Though offered by Harding University, Williams Baptist College and others, Ward said she’s “always been really set on Henderson.
“I’ve been going to camps at Henderson since I was 8 years old,” she added. “Ever since then I just knew I wanted to go there. I love Coach (Beth) Jackson. I love how all the girls act together. I love how they act more as a family than as a team. They enjoy being there.
“It’s always been a dream of mine to play in college so, basically, with my family’s help — they made sure I could go to showcase tournaments out of state and made sure I could play in front of college coaches. I’ve been doing softball every weekend for my whole life.”
Asked about Jackson’s plans for her, Ward said, “They’re having some seniors graduate when I’ll be a freshman. They’re losing a first baseman, a third baseman and a catcher. So she said she was going to try me at all those positions because she really wants to get me in.”
Ward added that she plans to go into nursing.
Making her commitment during the early signing period, Ward said, “Now I’m not stressed out about it. I’ve already got it out of the way. I’ve already got my plans worked out. I already have my goals achieved so I can start setting new ones.”
“When I first met her, I knew immediately that we were going to get along together,” said Lady Hornets’ new coach Lisa Dreher. “A catcher-coach relationship is very important. To me, she has the perfect personality to be a catcher. Most of my catchers, I have to encourage them to be more vocal but Julie — I do not have to worry about that with her. I see her as like a coach out on the field so her being vocal and knowledgeable about the game is really beneficial in the catching position.
“She’s always wanting explanations for things,” the coach related. “Coaches love that. It’s important for players to know why you do things. Julie is never going to go without knowing why. That’ll be perfect in a college setting as well.”
Nathan Castaldi has been an assistant for the Lady Hornets since Ward arrived. He noted she was named teammate of the year by her fellow players one year.
“She’s always done the things that we asked her to do,” he stated. “When we needed her to, she played outfield for us. Julie’s not an outfielder. She might think she can play anywhere on the field and she’ll be more than happy to play anywhere on the field, but it didn’t take us long to realize she wasn’t an outfielder.
“But she never complained,” he noted. “She went out there with a great attitude. Thankfully, we were able to get her out of that spot but she was more than willing to do what we needed her to do to make our team better. That’s a great attribute to have.”
Ward said she actually started as a baseball player when she was 5.
“I was too young to do softball,” she explained. “You had to be 6 to play softball. My brother played baseball so I just played baseball with his t-ball team.”
She started catching when she was 8.
“I like that I’m involved in every pitch,” she said. “I like to be able to touch the ball every single time. The catcher is the leader on the field and they’re in control. I like to be able to help everybody out when they need help.”
“She’s vocal and she leads by example,” Castaldi said, “by how hard she works in practice.
“Being a leader can be very difficult for young people,” he mentioned. “There’s so many distractions, teammates, friends, and that kind of stuff. And you want to be liked by all those people. And when they’re not working hard, to get on them and say, ‘Let’s go. We need to pick that up.’ That’s a tremendous attribute to have. And she’s had that since the time she was really young. She’s never once shied away from that responsibility. She’s never changed who she is.
“She had so much success in her freshman and sophomore year,” he mentioned. “But then last year, she struggled. I think we, as coaches, knew she was struggling. She knew she was struggling. It’s easy to be that leader, easy to be the type of player that everyone looks up to when things are going good and you’re hitting .400 and the team’s really successful. But who you are when things aren’t going your way, that’s when your true character shows.
“Last year, while she might’ve thought the year was not going the way she wanted to, her true character showed to us as coaches and, I’m sure, to her teammates. She didn’t come to practice and say, ‘I’m in a slump. I’m not going to work hard today.’ I had to tell her one time to take a break from softball. I told her, ‘Just this weekend, don’t hit. Relax. Just get your mind away from it.’ Because she wanted so much to be the player we know she is.
“When she gets to college, she’s going to face adversity,” the coach said. “There’s going to be a great pitcher to try to hit, she’s going to be playing with new people, that kind of stuff. But what she learned last year is going to get her through that. That’s a skill she has to have both in softball in the future but also a great life skill to have.
“This year, she’s going to shine,” he concluded.
Dreher, pointing to her batting practice sessions, agreed, saying, “She’s crushing it right now.”