Known for his poise, class and ability to take his God-given talent way beyond that of most high school athletes, Cahokia senior Ja’Mari Ward had his pick of any of the top NCAA Division I Track and Field programs in the nation of which to choose.
But in the end, Ward did what he does best. He kept his focus, followed his heart and did what he thought best. Ja’Mari Ward is going to be a University of Missouri Tiger.
With his parents — Joe and Rhonda Ward — along with Comanches coach Leroy Millsap, Cahokia track and field teammates and several others in attendance during a ceremony in the Cahokia High School libarary, Ward made his final decision public.
“I am going to the University of Missouri,’’ Ward announced. “It’s a great school and a place where I feel I can get a great education and continue to develop as athlete.”
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With perennial track and field powers such as Florida, Kentucky and Alabama all in the running from the early moments of the recruiting process, Ward, the top-ranked combination athlete in the triple jump and long jump, in the nation, made a visit to the Missouri campus a few weeks ago
“All of the schools I visited were great with outstanding coaches and I liked each and every one of them. Missouri got into it a little later in the process and when I went for my visit, I liked just liked the overall atmosphere. That was probably the one big determining factor. I felt comfortable. I liked the campus, I liked the coaching staff and I liked the athletes.’’
A two-time Class 2A state champion in both the long jump and triple jump, Ward is also a two-time Gatorade Illinois Track and Field Athlete of the Year in Illinois. His best efforts of 51 feet 11 inches in the triple jump and 25 feet 7 1/2 inches in the long jump are both among the best in the nation. Ward is also the leader of the Cahokia squad which is a heavy favorite to win its record sixth straight Class 2A state championship next May.
Ward was also part of two junior high track teams that captured state championships when he was in the seventh and eight grades. But his relationship with Millsap and the Cahokia High School program goes back even further then that. Older brothers LaDerrick and LaJerrick Ward were both exceptional track athletes at Cahokia. But it was Ja’Mari, who caught the eye of Millsap while in the fifth grade.
“I’ve been telling Ja’Mari since he was in the fifth grade that he had what it takes to be an Olympic athlete one day. He bought into that and has worked and developed into just a tremendous young athlete and a great young man,’’ Millsap. “Am I surprised he is going to Missouri? Do I think its a good place for him? I believe in Ja’Mari Ward. He’s an extremely intelligent young man who is doing what he feels is right for himself and his future.
“I will say this. The University of Missouri is lucky to get him. He’s the best athlete I’ve ever coached.’’
Ward said the Missouri program is one on the rise. The Comanches senior will compete in his specialties — the triple jump and long jump and may also be used in the 100 and 200 meters as well as in relays.
“I know I’ve got to continue to work hard and I’ve got to get stronger and faster. I believe that with the help of my coaches and teammates that I will continue to do that. I’m willing to to do whatever it takes to achieve my goals,’’ Ward said.
“I’m glad the decision is made and that I know where I’m going to be during the next four years. The recruiting process wears on you with all the coaches calling. They were all really nice though. But now, I can enjoy the rest of my senior year and get ready for track season in the spring.’’
Ward’s brother, LaDerrick, a two-time NCAA Division I All-American in the long jump while competing at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, is continuing to train at the University of Missouri in Columbia.
Ja’Mari Ward said that his brother being at Missouri didn’t play a factor in his decision, even though the entire Ward family is very close.
“It really didn’t. I wanted to go someplace where I could kind of be on my own,’’ Ward said. “But the more I thought about Missouri and that I liked it made the fact that LaDerrick is there just become an added bonus.”
Joe Ward, a former standout in wrestling at Cahokia, is elated that two of his sons will be so close to home and together.
“We’re very happy that Ja’Mari has found a school where he will be able to get a great education and continue to develop as an athlete and as a young man.
“It was his decision, but as parents we are happy that he will be close to home so that we can continue to watch him compete. He’s a great young man and we are proud of him. We are truly blessed to have a wonderful family.’’
The Comanches are currently lifting weights in preparation for the 2016 season, which begins in early March.
Ward’s goals for the upcoming season?
“54 feet in the triple jump and 26-27 feet in the long jump,’’ Ward said with a smile. “Realistic? Those are the goals.”