Wrestling Coach Builds Program from Mat Up

Head coach Kevin Ward of the Ouachita wrestling team graduated from Soddy Daisy High School in Tennessee in 2001. He was on his way to the prestigious Oklahoma State University, where he planned to wrestle.

“When I went to OSU, they had already won 30 national titles. The transition from a small Tennessee school to one of the top schools in the country was crazy,” Ward said.

Oklahoma State is one of the best wrestling programs in the country and most of the second and third string wrestlers on Oklahoma State’s team could start on other collegiate wrestling team.

“There is really no easy day at practice,” he said. “You’re going into a room where the competition is the best of the best every day. College is tough enough, and then adding a transition into a program with that talent — it’s tough physically, mentally and emotionally. I knew what I signed up for when I went there, and I enjoyed my experience tremendously.”

 

Post-Grad, Move to OBU

After Ward graduated from the program, he stayed on as a graduate assistant for four seasons before deciding he wanted to move on to something different.

“I was twenty-six and trying to decide what I wanted to do,” he said. “I was deciding between a couple of options and I knew I wanted to make somewhere my home and get settled in on a career.”

Ward contributes the opportunity to apply for the job through his relationship with Pat Smith, the first 4-time NCAA national champion in collegiate athletics and former assistant coach at Oklahoma State, where Ward met him.

“Definitely knowing Pat Smith and Greg Hatcher [through Smith], I realized that they wanted to start a program at Ouachita,” he said. “I wanted to feel like I could make a difference and this opportunity came along.”

 

Difficult Challenge Ahead

“When we got here, we had an idea in place, but not much groundwork,” Ward said.

He started a program that had zero players, no facility and no schedule in April. By August, he had brought in 21 new freshmen with two transfers. He had a wrestling room built and got a full schedule.

“My head was spinning,” he said. “Some days seemed to drag on forever. There was just so much to get done.”

The first year, the wrestling team had to wrestle out of a storage room by the football field. The room had hardwood floors, a mat, plywood on the walls, no plumbing and no locker room.

“You walked in, changed, got on the matt and wrestled,” Ward said. “The first year was difficult for us. We finished last in the country, where everyone expected us to finish.”

He did say that he believed that the team that year wasn’t bad, “we just didn’t finish well,” he said.

Ward believes that the first year set a precedence for the future of Ouachita wrestling.

“Looking back,” he said, “some of the things we did that first year really set in place opportunities for us to be successful the following seasons. The first season was rough but we won three matches that year, so we had three more than anyone expected from us.”

 

New Facility

Greg Hatcher, of Hatcher Insurance in Little Rock and founder of the Arkansas Wrestling Academy, donated enough money and saw through the construction of a new wrestling complex that was finished before the 2010 season. Hatcher Wrestling Complex rivals any Division Two wrestling facility in the country.

The major jump in success came the second year that Ouachita fielded a wrestling team. Ward was able to focus on recruiting following the first season and less on managing other aspects like scheduling and making sure they had a place to wrestle.

The second season saw Tiger Wrestling go from last in the country to making the national tournament and placing 15th in the country. It was the biggest jump of any team in wrestling regardless of division.

 

New Goals Set

This past year, the team had even more success, inlcuding another top 15 finish and three all-Americans. Dallas Smith, one of the premire wrestlers on the team also made the national championship in his weight class.

“Last year,” Ward said, “we had our first national champion finalist, [Dallas Smith]. Preseason rankings aren’t out yet for the upcoming season, but when they do come out we’ll be in the top 10, and we expect to finish there if we continue to get better day by day.”

 

Future of Tiger Wrestling

Ward said while he’s very proud of his success so far, he looks to the next motivating milestones that Ouachita wrestling will experience.

“I look forward to see who will be our first national champion, who will be our first four time all-American, and the year we bring home our first national championship trophy as a team,” he said. “Those are things we are capable of doing either this season or in the next few seasons to come.”

Ward said he’s happy where the program is at and is very comfortable in Arkadelphia.

“I absolutely love where I’m at right now, “ he said. “I’m placed here for a reason and everyday I think about how to make the most positive impact I can. I’ve got a chance to be a positive influence on these guys lives and it just so happens that I can help them with their wrestling goals as well.

“I’m a very lucky man. Motivation and making a positive impact on someone’s life daily is what drives me, and if wrestling is a tool to get that done then all the better, because I think it’s the greatest sport in the world and I love coaching it.”

Dixon Land

Dixon Land is a senior Mass Communications and Christian Studies double major from Little Rock, Ark. He currently serves as editor-in-chief of The Signal. Previous to that, he served as sports editor and assistant sports editor.

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