In the decades prior to Zach Ward’s tenure as head coach, state tournament trips had been rare for Stanwood High School boys basketball.
Under Ward, they became an almost annual occurrence.
Ward helped turn small-town Stanwood into a big-time presence on the prep basketball scene, guiding the Spartans to eight state berths in his 14 seasons at the helm. His teams made three Class 3A state quarterfinal appearances and claimed two state trophies, highlighted by a program-best fourth-place finish in 2017.
“Stanwood basketball has always been a strong program,” Stanwood athletic director Tom Wilfong said. “But he was able to elevate it.”
After a highly successful run, Ward is stepping down as Stanwood’s coach. He confirmed his decision with The Herald last week.
Ward spent the past 21 seasons coaching in the Spartans’ program, beginning as a volunteer assistant in 2000 before taking over as the head coach in 2007. He said he plans to continue teaching at the high school.
“Nothing but real positive memories,” Ward said of his coaching career at Stanwood. “It was just an awesome chapter of my life. … For me, it was just time. I’m ready to be around my family more and just start the next chapter.
“I’ve got two daughters — one’s in high school and one’s in elementary school,” he added. “And there’s definitely gonna be a lot more time spent with them.”
Ward posted a 226-102 career record (.689 winning percentage) at Stanwood, including a 139-34 mark (.803 winning percentage) in league play. He guided the Spartans to at least a share of six league titles, as well as six district championship game appearances and two district titles.
In his first two seasons at the helm, Stanwood fell one win short of state. In 2010, his third season, the Spartans broke through and reached the 4A state tournament. It was just the program’s third state appearance in three decades, according to the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association’s website.
“The first two years, we lost in a winner-to-state, loser-out game,” Ward said. “And those were just excruciating losses. I can remember after that second one thinking, ‘I’m gonna do everything in my power not to feel this again.’
“And we broke through that third year and got to the state tournament. And then, that culture was just kind of born — like this is what we do.”
In 2013, Stanwood began a streak of seven consecutive trips to the 3A state tournament. That included a particularly successful stretch from 2013-14 through 2016-17, when the Spartans went a combined 44-1 in league play and reached the state quarterfinals three times in four years.
“Those early groups kind of set the bar, and then every group underneath realized that and wanted it,” Ward said. “Stanwood is a community where a lot of those kids were (growing up) going to those games. When they were younger, they were able to go down to (the state tournament in) Tacoma and see the older boys play, and they wanted that.
“And I think that’s really what helped drive that culture. I don’t even necessarily think it was a culture change. I think it was just establishing what we wanted to do. And the kids put a ton of work in. Kids would work year-round to try and reach those goals.”
The pinnacle came in 2017, when a senior-laden Stanwood team made program history with a fourth-place trophy in a 3A state field that’s typically dominated by Seattle-area Metro League teams.
That year, the Spartans fell to a star-studded Nathan Hale team in the state quarterfinals. Led by current Denver Nuggets forward Michael Porter Jr., that Nathan Hale team went on to finish No. 1 in several national polls.
But Stanwood bounced back in the consolation bracket, winning back-to-back games over Metro League powers Seattle Prep and Rainier Beach to earn its program’s best-ever state finish.
“That was the moment where I just felt like that was the ultimate breakthrough,” Ward said. “We just beat two perennial state powers on back-to-back nights — little ol’ Stanwood — and we’re going home with a fourth-place trophy.
“At that point, I can just remember holding my hands up in the sky just being proud — proud of the kids, proud of the community, proud of all the work we’d done. That was the moment where it was kind of like, ‘We did it.’”
Ward said that while he’ll cherish all the success and accomplishments, some of his fondest memories were times spent with his team off the court. He and the coaching staff took their players on team camp trips to different places across the country, which gave them the opportunity to visit some of college basketball’s most hallowed arenas — Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium, North Carolina’s Dean Smith Center and UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion.
“I’ve had a long time the last couple days just to kind of sit out in my backyard and just think (back to) so many great memories,” Ward said. “And a lot of them are obviously basketball-related.
“But man, we did so much cool stuff with the kids. … I just have so many cool memories about those trips that we were able to take. It (was) a joy to share those things with them.”
Wilfong said Ward’s ability to connect to his players was likely his greatest coaching trait.
“His knowledge of the game — the X’s and O’s, as you’d call it — is great,” Wilfong said. “But his ability to work with kids is probably even better. … He’s an educator, so he knows kids, he understands kids, he wants what’s best for them. And he sees where athletics plays in that and how that can help direct a kid that may not have that direction on their own.
“He’ll be missed,” Wilfong added. “He’s an awesome guy and a great coach.”
Ward, a 1994 Marysville Pilchuck graduate who went on to play basketball at Everett Community College, credited longtime MP coach Mike Lowery and longtime EvCC coach Larry Walker as two of his mentors. He also praised Nate DuChesne and current Glacier Peak coach Brian Hunter — both of whom Ward coached under when he was an assistant at Stanwood.
“I have been so fortunate to have great mentors show me the way,” Ward said. “All of those guys had a part in molding me and what we did at Stanwood.
“Also, (I’ve) gotta add my varsity assistant, Harlan Roberson. Getting to share all those memories and build that program together with your best friend makes it even better. We did this together.”
Stanwood has posted a job opening for the head-coaching position, as it begins its search for Ward’s replacement.
“Stanwood basketball has a following,” Wilfong said. “It’s well-known. … It’s gonna be a job that I think will garner some interest.”