Lightly Recruited Ward Increases Draft Stock
by Will Kimmey
March 17, 2005
Gardner-Webb coach Rusty Strouppe and his wife Karen were driving north on Interstate 85 toward her hometown in Salisbury, N.C., when he noticed the shining lights of an American Legion field just off the highway. Strouppe remembered hearing a tip about a player on the Concord team and asked his wife to drop him off to watch the game.
Three years later, Strouppe can’t remember the name of the player he stopped to see. But he can clearly recall Zach Ward pitching for Kannapolis, throwing some sort of 78-80 mph slider that the Concord batters couldn’t hit. Strouppe asked Kannapolis’ first-base coach what Division I school the righthander planned to attend that fall and found out he only had one scholarship offer, from North Carolina A&T.
Ward visited Gardner-Webb’s campus two weeks later and signed with the Bulldogs. He has developed into their top pitcher, and opened his junior year with 161/3 hitless innings, which included a nine-inning no-hitter against Akron. Ward’s combination of a low-90s sinking fastball, mid-80s power curveball and improved changeup helped him to a 3-0, 1.11 overall record with 31 strikeouts, 12 walks and seven hits allowed in 24 innings.
Ward sees it simply as a continuation of a summer in which he allowed three earned runs and struck out 57 batters in 43 Cape Cod League innings. That came after he ranked eighth nationally with 12.0 strikeouts per nine innings as a sophomore at Gardner-Webb, where he went 5-1, 1.95 in Atlantic Sun Conference play.
“For me, it’s a confidence thing,” Ward said. “I definitely have more confidence now after the summer in the Cape.
“I always wanted to be a major leaguer—when I was a mediocre high school pitcher, when I was a legit Division I college pitcher. Everybody talks about that their whole life, but this summer in the Cape is when I believed I could do it.”
Ward’s transition from getting overlooked in high school to ranking as the Cape’s No. 13 prospect started with a leap of faith. He threw his breaking ball about 75 percent of the time as a prep because he didn’t have confidence in or command of his low-80s fastball. Still, Ward and Strouppe were both surprised when Gardner-Webb pitching coach Dan Roszel banned the pitcher from throwing his breaking ball. Roszel wanted the 6-foot-4, 235-pound athlete to unleash and then build his arm strength by focusing on his fastball and some mechanical tweaks.
“I told him ‘If you make a few adjustments, you can be the best pitcher that ever came out of Gardner-Webb,’ ” Roszel said. “At the time, I kind of thought that was a line. I just wanted him to get up to 90 before he graduated. He was up to 96 by the end of his freshman year.”
Roszel called Ward a quick study, crediting the pupil with nightly work on drills in his dorm room. He also quickly developed a feel for a hard curveball to go with his new fastball.
Ward took his new arsenal to the mound, producing a 5-1, 4.14 record with 51 strikeouts in 50 innings. He spent the summer back on his Kannapolis Post 501 Legion team and drew interest from a handful of larger Division I schools, who wanted to add Ward as a transfer. These were some of the same schools that told Ward the previous summer that he’d never be good enough to play for them. The roles reversed, he opted to remain loyal to the coach and school that took the original chance on him.
“He’s never thought he was above us,” Strouppe said. “He had his dad out there telling people he liked being at Gardner-Webb and not to even try.”
That’s part of the humble persona Ward maintains. He takes pride in playing at Gardner-Webb and being a part of the nearby community, where he has become something of a local celebrity. He has joined Strouppe on visits to nearby Spring More Elementary School to speak with the students. Ward patiently fielded autograph requests at the school, around town and even after a recent start at North Carolina. Nonetheless, he remains grounded.
“He tries as much as he can not to draw attention to himself,” Strouppe said. “He’s just another guy on the bus. He’s very appreciative of where he’s come from and what he has been able to do. He’s been very careful not to put himself on the same pedestal other people try to put him on.”
Ward’s celebrity has spread to scouts this year. He’s attracting 15 to 20 at each start. Ward is a lock to become the third Gardner-Webb player drafted since 1985 and will become the highest-drafted player in school history if he comes off the board before round three.
Some scouts feel Ward’s short arm action, which looks a bit like that of Red Sox closer Keith Foulke, could lead to a career in relief, but they all agree he should be selected in the first two rounds.
“Sometimes with a smaller school, you don’t get the recognition you want,” Ward said. “But I’m starting to get it now by proving that I belong with the elite players.”