A.L. Brown grad Zach Ward to enter Gardner-Webb Hall of Fame
KANNAPOLIS — A.L. Brown graduate Zach Ward will enter the Gardner-Webb Sports Hall of Fame on Oct. 9, a very humbling experience for a 31-year-old.
“This makes me feel old,” Ward said with a laugh. “But it’s a great honor. This was the first year I was eligible, so that really makes it something special for my whole family.”
Ward, a 6-foot-3 right-hander, was great at Gardner-Webb. He pitched a no-hitter, made All-America teams and was a third-round draft pick by the Cincinnati Reds.
“Zach was one the most dominant pitchers I’ve seen in my 30 seasons as a baseball coach,” Gardner-Webb coach Rusty Stroupe said. “He was considered by many to be the top right-handed pitcher in the nation at points during his college career and our hitters were just glad he was on our team because none of them wanted to face him.”
Ward’s story would make a fine movie because it was an uphill fight for a long time.
In his early days with the Wonders, he threw hard, but without great control or positive results.
By his junior year he was making strides.
By 2002, his senior year, his command, maturity and poise had caught up with the strength of his right arm, and he was outstanding.
Baseball fans remember what a great team East Rowan had in 2002 — Cal Hayes Jr., Bobby Parnell, Julian Sides, Drew Davis, Nick Lefko, Spencer Steedley, just to name six. What isn’t always remembered is that A.L. Brown tied East for the North Piedmont Conference championship. Ward lost two duels to Sides that year, but Ward beat a very good West Rowan team three times by striking out 37 Falcons.
Ward won 2-1 against powerhouse Eastern Randolph in the first round of the 3A state playoffs, but his high school career ended when the Wonders lost in the second round.
As the American Legion summer of 2002 unfolded in Kannapolis, Ward had one Division I offer — from North Carolina A&T. He was still well under everyone else’s radar. Gardner-Webb had never heard of him.
It was fate that the Stroupes were driving through Cabarrus County on a July night when Ward was pitching for Kannapolis against Concord. Stroupe saw a sign proclaiming “Legion Game Tonight.” Stroupe had heard Concord had a good player and decided to check him out. His wife dropped him off.
“She headed on to a dance competition, something like that,” Ward said. “It was getting very late in the recruiting process, and I just got fortunate. I happened to strike out 18 or 19 that night. Not long after that, I was visiting Gardner-Webb.”
He starred for Stroupe’s first Gardner-Webb team in 2003. He beat three ranked teams that season, including Georgia. He was Gardner-Webb’s first-ever Louisville Slugger Freshman All-America.
After his freshman season, he was still eligible for American Legion. He rejoined teammates and friends from A.L. Brown and Northwest Cabarrus on a memorable run in the summer of 2003.
He beat Eastern Randolph as Kannapolis won the Area III championship series, and he beat Snow Hill in Kannapolis’ opening game in the state tournament in Fayetteville. He finished that season 9-1.
There were many offers from big schools that wanted Ward to transfer. He stuck with Gardner-Webb.
Following his sophomore season at Gardner-Webb, Ward led the prestigious Cape Cod Baseball League, the top summer league for college players, in strikeouts. After that success, there was no doubt he would become the highest profile draft pick in Gardner-Webb history.
Ward’s junior season with the G-W Bulldogs began with total dominance. He pitched six no-hit innings against Appalachian State, but it was only February, and he exited early because he was on a pitch count.
His next outing, he did throw a no-hitter, shutting down Akron for nine innings and striking out 11. That was the first no-hitter by a Gardner-Webb hurler in 31 years.
His third outing, he was used as a reliever. He finally allowed a hit, but the record book shows that that 2005 season with 16 1/3 hitless innings.
“The scene I remember most is during a conference game against Belmont that year when an opposing player was buckled by one of his breaking pitches,” Stroupe said. “After the pitch he stepped out of the box and we saw him mouth the word “Wow,” and our whole dugout laughed. Zach threw pitches that were absolutely unhittable at times.”
Ward had entered Gardner-Webb throwing 88 mph. At his peak, his fastball was being clocked at 96 mph and he also had mastered a power curveball. The Reds drafted Ward after his junior season.
He won 17 games at Gardner-Webb and broke the school records for career strikeouts (284) and strikeouts per nine innings (10.8).
“I had some great games, but I was pitching through some issues my junior year,” Ward said. “I had some inner ear problems and was dealing with vertigo.”
He didn’t pitch in the minors in 2005, as the Reds wanted him to rest.
But he was phenomenal when they turned him loose for Dayton (Ohio) in the Class A Midwest League in 2006. In 18 starts for Dayton, he was 7-0 with a 2.18 ERA and 95 strikeouts. In June, he was the Midwest League Pitcher of the Week. He’d become a hot property by then, and he was involved in one of those trade-deadline deals, heading to the Minnesota Twins in a one-for-one swap for Kyle Lohse, an established MLB starter.
The Twins assigned him to Beloit, Wisc., in the Midwest League, but, from there, Ward’s fortunes turned downward.
“I won my first game with the Twins, and I was 8-0, but I finished that season 8-4,” Ward said.
The following season, Ward was promoted to Minnesota’s Advanced A team in Fort Myers, Fla. He pitched respectably (4.08 ERA, 107 strikeouts) but with no luck and went 5-17.
His final moments of dominance came in 2009 when the Twins decided to convert him to a relief role at Double A New Britain (Conn.).
“I had a nice streak of scoreless innings, and considering the high level of competition, I was proud of how I pitched,” Ward said. “But my velocity starting creeping down. I’d always been a starter, pitching every five, six or seven days, and my arm reacted differently to pitching out of the bullpen several times a week. I went from low to mid 90s to mid to upper 80s that year. I never suffered a serious injury, but my velocity never came back.”
The Twins organization released him in 2009. The Reds welcomed Ward back. But his velocity didn’t return, and then the Reds let him go as well.
Ward didn’t give up easily. He played two seasons of pro baseball for independent teams in Illinois (2-10) and North Dakota (2011) and did well enough that he contemplated going back for a third season.
“I pitched through some minor elbow issues when maybe I shouldn’t have,” Ward said. “But I was chasing the dream. I chased it a long time.”
In 2012, Ward’s wife was expecting, and that’s when he knew he’d reached a crossroads. His decision was to stop chasing and to settle down in Kannapolis and live a normal life.
It’s been a great decision.
His daughter is 3 now, and Ward’s home remodeling business — The Restoration Ward — is thriving. He has two full-time employees, and they skillfully handle bathroom and kitchen upgrades.
Ward also gives something back to baseball every spring, helping out coach Empsy Thompson and the Wonders as volunteer pitching coach on the same field where be blossomed into stardom.
“I’m extremely proud of Zach, not only for what he accomplished as a player, but for the kind of person he is,” Stroupe said. “He really grew a lot as a man during his time at Gardner-Webb and afterward.”