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A Life: Eric G. Ward; ‘The team was his support system’

  • Thetford coach Eric Ward, right, the team's bench and their fans encourage the Panthers as Windsor's lead shrinks late in their Division III state championship game in Barre, Vt., on March 18, 2017. Thetford won on a last-second shot, 53-52. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — Geoff Hansen

  • Eric Ward stands with the first girls basketball team he coached in 1985, the fifth- and sixth-graders at the Newton School in Strafford, Vt. (Family photograph) Family photograph

  • Eric Ward competes in the 100th running of the Boston Marathon on April 15, 1996. Ward finished the race in 3:32, amongst 38,708 entrants. (Family photograph)

  • Thetford girls basketball coach Eric Ward discusses strategy with his team during halftime against Rivendell in Thetford, Vt., on December 28th, 2011. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — Sarah Priestap

  • A sign for Thetford Academy head coach Eric Ward, who wasn’t able to attend his team’s game against Windsor High School because he wasn’t feeling well, sits on the bench at Thetford Academy in Thetford, Vt., on Tuesday, Jan. 25, 2022. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Alex Driehaus

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 8/7/2022 7:31:35 PM
Modified: 8/13/2022 9:38:28 PM

In his 14 years coaching varsity girls basketball at Thetford Academy, Eric Ward received only one technical foul — and he did it on purpose.

“He told the girls, if you do this, I’ll get a technical,” Pam Robinson, Ward’s younger sister, said. “I can’t remember what it was he told them, but he started going at the ref. It was the only game he ever sat down, because they made him sit down. He was having fun. We were talking to the ref after the game, and he goes, ‘heck, if I’d known you wanted the technical, I would have helped you out more.’ ”

Ward, after a yearlong battle with colon cancer, died on May 11 at age 64. He coached basketball for 42 years, starting at the fifth- and sixth-grade level in his hometown of Strafford. After taking over the TA program in 2009, he guided the Panthers to the first three state championships in program history. His teams reached the VPA Division III semifinals every year from 2012 through 2020, including six consecutive title game appearances.

“I was just amazed how into the sport he was,” said Kiana Johnson, a senior on Ward’s 2019 title-winning team. “You don’t find coaches that dedicated and passionate around here. He made me love it even more than I already did, which I didn’t think was possible.”

Ward grew up in an athletic family — he and Robinson spent their weekends skiing and playing basketball, baseball, soccer and more. A 1976 Thetford Academy graduate, Ward attended the University of Vermont before following in his father’s footsteps in working for the United States Postal Service.

Ralph Ward died when his son was 15 and his daughter was 13. Robinson said her brother stepped into more of a family leadership role after that, particularly when it came to caring for their mother, Marlene.

“He always felt that responsibility of taking care of her,” Robinson said. “Even in later years, he was her caregiver. That was a hard transition at age 15, all of a sudden you’re taking over the father’s (role). Then he went off school, (but) we always remained close.”

That leadership role served Ward well on the basketball court. While Robinson married and moved to Virginia Beach, Va., Ward remained in Vermont his entire life, entering the world of coaching at the AAU levels after returning to Strafford from UVM.

An avid runner who completed several marathons, including the 100th running of the Boston Marathon in 1996, Ward helped out with high school cross country meets at Thetford Academy’s Woods Trail. That introduced him to TA athletic director David McGinn, who hired him to coach girls’ varsity basketball in 2009.

Thetford had played primarily Division IV teams, but was in the process of moving to the Capital League, which meant a predominantly Division II schedule. While the boys’ team appeared ready for the change, having won the Division III title as recently as 2004 and coming off four straight trips to the semifinals, the girls had not won a playoff game since appearing in the 2005 final.

“Ultimately, everybody benefits from playing stronger competition,” McGinn said. “Eric never batted an eyelash. He was all in, he couldn’t wait to get started, and he built the girls’ program from a starting point that was challenging in the Capital League to being one of the most successful teams in the state.”

Ward went through two rebuilding years, with early postseason exits in 2010 and 2011, but by his third season, he was ready to lead the Panthers to the most dominant stretch they’ve experienced. McGinn had left to become the AD at St. Johnsbury Academy by then, but hiring Ward may have been his biggest lasting impact at Thetford — the Panthers fell in the semifinals in 2012 and 2013 before winning their first title in 2014, a 90-84 barnburner over Williamstown at Barre Auditorium.

Wendy Cole, TA’s former director of admissions, has kept the scorebook for the Panthers since 2013, riding the team bus to away games. Ward made sure to thank her for her important yet often-overlooked job after every game, she said.

“I really appreciated Eric’s total concern for the team and the girls as part of the team, not necessarily as individuals,” Cole said. “That was one of the most impressive things, watching the way he coached the girls and the way he talked with them on the way to the game, on the bus on the way home. I always felt good with him as the coach because I knew he was going to take care of things.”

After runner-up finishes in 2015 and ‘16, Thetford was back on top in 2017, edging Windsor in a 53-52 thriller. With the Aud essentially becoming the Panthers’ second home, Ward knew how to prepare his players for the historic building’s mystique.

“When the kids were younger, they were all coming to Barre to watch the teams play, and they were so excited to hopefully get a chance to be on the team and get back there,” said Jeff Vaughan, who was on Ward’s coaching staff from 2015 until 2020. “We would do things at practice that would try to emulate what it was like at Barre. It’s so loud in Barre, (so) we would play music really loud and try to get the kids used to that kind of environment.”

The Yellowjackets avenged their 2017 loss by beating Thetford in the 2018 title game, but the Panthers brought Ward his third trophy the year after that, defeating Windsor in the semifinals before taking down Oxbow for the championship.

That 2019 team included a pair of transfers from Chelsea, which had closed the year prior as part of the merger that created the First Branch Unified School District. Johnson, who averaged a team-best 12.3 points per game as a senior in her lone season at Thetford, said the chance to play for Ward was a big part of her transfer decision.

“He’s just dedicated and very passionate about teaching people his knowledge of the game and sharing everything he has to offer,” Johnson said.

That dedication and passion kept Ward going after his cancer diagnosis in April 2021. Around a month after the Panthers’ season ended with a disappointing first-round playoff loss, Ward fell ill and was taken to Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, where he was given a grave prognosis: roughly a few days to live.

The coach was bleeding internally and had an enlarged liver and an irregular heartbeat, but he was determined to return to the Thetford bench. Ward, who never married or had children, told the Burlington Free Press in February that “coaching gave (him) a purpose.”

The Panthers, fighting for their coach on the court just as Ward was fighting for them, had a topsy-turvy season that included a three-week stretch without a game due to COVID-19 cases and Thetford’s return-to-play protocols. They blew out Leland & Gray in their postseason opener before their upset bid fell three points short in the quarterfinals against Williamstown — and were well aware that they might have just played the last game Ward would ever coach.

“Every game, I had it in the back of my mind that this may be Eric’s last game,” said Charlize Brown, a sophomore on the 2021-22 team. “I tried to shove it away, because I wanted to believe that Eric Ward is strong and he’s tough, he’ll make it through. It is a miracle for him to go as long as he did, considering the circumstances he was given.”

Ward’s final season included a December trip to Division I powerhouse Champlain Valley Union in Hinesburg, as Ward was one of a few coaches willing to challenge the mighty Redhawks. CVU coach Ute Otley, a friend of Ward’s through the Vermont Basketball Coaches Association, helped create a scholarship in Ward’s name to be presented annually to an outstanding girls’ basketball player in the state.

“Not only was he beloved by his players, but I don’t know a single coach who has a bad word to say about Eric Ward,” Otley said. “It’s hard to be as successful as he has been and be able to say that. He was really universally respected. At our last (VBCA) meeting of the year, I threw out that idea — what if we can raise some money for a scholarship named after Eric?”

When the news of Ward’s death broke, Cole, the scorekeeper, gathered the team outside the school and read a letter penned by his sister. Robinson wrote to the players, “if you hear a rumble from the heavens, you will know it’s Eric stomping his feet from the sidelines.”

Now an incoming junior at TA, Brown plans to help coordinate an effort to inscribe Ward’s name on the court and ensure the Panthers wear a patch on their jerseys to honor him during the 2022-23 season.

“The basketball team was his support system,” Brown said. “He even stated that to us — we were his best medicine.”

Benjamin Rosenberg can be reached at brosenberg@vnews.com or 603-727-3302.




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