The high school wrestling season has been a balancing act of sorts for St. Augustine Prep coach Bill Ward.
Ward has had to go back-and-forth between his roles as proud dad and first-year head coach all year.
“It has been great,” Ward said. “The administration, the parents and the wrestlers have all truly supported me from the beginning. They bought into my system and really supported it.”
Only one problem.
“The only part of it I didn’t enjoy,” Ward continued, “was not being able to see my son wrestle.”
Ward’s son is Buena Regional standout wrestler Billy Ward.
This season, Ward’s senior year, is his first at the high school level without having his dad as a coach.
“I definitely noticed it,” Billy Ward said. “He was always pushing me and giving me tips during my practices.
“This year was different. It kind of felt like something was missing.”
Both Wards have had successful seasons and each will be plenty busy this weekend at the state individual wrestling championship at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City.
Billy will be going for his first state title in his fourth trip to states. Bill (who coached the Hermits into the finals of the South Jersey Non-Public A tournament and won the Cape-Atlantic League American Conference title) has three wrestlers competing in the tournament — Tom Gattinella, Jarred Hodges and Tyler Sentman.
Bill Ward accepted the Prep’s head coaching position before the season after two decades as an assistant coach to Doug Castellari at Buena Regional. Bill Ward, who had a 106-9 career record and was a runner-up in the state tournament his senior year at the Prep, was actually head coach of the Prep for one season in 1991 before going to Buena.
St. Augustine and Buena are longtime rivals but didn’t face off this season. The Hermits are in the CAL American and Buena the CAL National so they aren’t required to wrestle and shelved the match for at least one season.
The first real conflict for the Wards came on Feb. 23 in the 126-pound District 32 final as Billy won his fourth district title against Prep junior Ed Donahue.
Bill Ward, normally one of the most animated and vocal coaches in the area, quietly sat in the bleachers in the corner of the Absegami gym with fans, not saying a word.
“It was strange,” Bill Ward said. “It was difficult. I wished Eddy the best and we talked about that earlier in the season and said I wouldn’t be involved either way.”
Billy Ward said it was strange not hearing his dad during a big match.
“There could be a million people in a gym and he would be the one person that sticks out to me,” Ward said. “No matter how loud it is, I hear my dad.”
It’s hard to overstate what wrestling means to the Wards.
“It’s everything to me and him,” Billy said. “That’s like our bond. He’s always pushed me to be my best.
“It’s awesome having someone that is your coach but is also your dad and motivator. It’s nice.”
Added Bill, “He’s my son and I missed him. I’m used to having him with me. I’ve been coaching for a long time and there is nothing like having your son to wrestle with you or for you.”
Castellari and Bill Ward are longtime friends and in a good show of sportsmanship, Castellari asked if Ward wanted to coach with him during his son’s matches in the Region 8 tournament on Friday and Saturday. Ward likely will do the same thing at states as long as none of the Prep’s three state qualifiers are wrestling at the same time.
“It’s awesome that I have Doug and my dad in my corner,” Billy Ward said. “Especially for my senior year being able to go out like that. The two people I want in my corner the most are the two people that are there.”
Billy Ward has already had an impressive postseason. He won his fourth District 32 and Region 8 titles and will enter states on Friday as his school’s all-time winningest wrestler with 136-12 record.
“I just have to go out there and have fun with it,” Billy Ward said. “It’s my last one so go big or go home right now. No regrets, there’s no time for that now, so I have to stay focused and make it happen.”
Ward is seeded second in the bottom half of the 126-pound bracket. He has already started to receive interest from a number of Division I programs, including Rutgers, and said he was waiting to see how states go before making any decision on colleges.
This weekend likely will be the last time Bill Ward will be able to coach his son, a fact not lost on the Prep coach.
“I’m an emotional guy,” Ward said. “I think about that a lot. I’m sad already and it’s not even over yet.”
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