Building character and champions

Senior lacrosse player has found blend of sports, academics, and faith

By Linda Strowbridge  |  Photos by Howard Korn

A public school kid from Anne Arundel County, Justin Ward was simply looking for a scholarship and a spot on a university lacrosse team.

What he found, unexpectedly, at Loyola University Maryland was a stirring combination of sports, academics, and faith that profoundly changed his outlook on life and his plans for his future.

“I couldn’t imagine going to another school,” Ward says now—though just a few years ago, Ward couldn’t imagine getting into Loyola.

An under-scouted athlete at a high school not known for lacrosse, Ward had filled his list of universities to apply to with Division 2 and Division 3 schools—and then on a whim, he added Loyola “as my shot in the dark.”

Loyola coaches, however, noticed Ward’s performance in local conference games and started learning more about him.

“Something that is unique about our coaching staff is that they care most about a kid’s character,” Ward says. “Coach (Charley) Toomey has told me that when he’s recruiting a kid, he will follow the kid after a game all the way back to his car just to see how he interacts with his teammates and his parents, and whether he picks up a bottle that didn’t get into a trash can. He cares more about a young man’s character than how many goals he scored in a game.”

It Comes Down to Character

As a freshman at Loyola, Ward was struck by the character-building aspects of his lacrosse team and his classes. A United Methodist who didn’t even know what a Jesuit was before he came to Loyola, Ward initially questioned the need for Spanish, philosophy, and other core courses. The Christian ethics course, however, turned out to be Ward’s favorite class, and the finance major developed a passion for studying theology.

Further, the lacrosse team’s annual retreat became “my favorite weekend of the year by far,” he said. “It’s a very raw scene of guys just being themselves. You realize you’re all brothers—all equals—and what a real privilege it is to have the opportunity to come together.”

Ward, who began helping Campus Ministry organize the event, even delivered one of the talks at this year’s retreat. Focused on challenges and questions he faced during his sophomore year, the talk revealed how faith helped Ward develop a greater trust in himself, in his teammates, and in God, and that trust enabled him to overcome challenges.

The same year, the team won the national championship.

Lacrosse and faith, Ward says, went so far as to change his career plans that year.

Ward came to the realization that what he really wanted to do with his life was become a university lacrosse coach.

Today Ward coaches 16- to 17-year-old players in the Maryland RoughRiders league. After having seen how much a great coach could help develop not just lacrosse players, but young men of character,  “I almost feel like it’s a God-given purpose,” he says. “I want to work with young men, helping them make the best decisions they can make for the rest of their lives.”

Ward even has an idea of where he would like to coach: “Maybe by the time Coach Toomey is ready to step down, I will be ready to take over his kingdom.”

Read more about how Loyola’s Bright Minds, Bold Hearts campaign will support athletics.

Since the writing of this article, Justin Ward was named Offensive Player of the Week by the Patriot League. With eight assists and four goals in two games last week, Ward helped the Greyhounds extend their record to 4-0 in league play and 8-1 overall. Loyola men’s lacrosse is currently ranked No. 1 in the country.

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