Original article was featured in the Tampa Bay Times.
TAMPA — As Hillsborough High began preparations for its first state semifinal appearance in 22 years on Monday, coach Chris Ward was more than 1,600 miles away.
Ward was in Sioux Falls, S.D., to watch his son, former Tampa Prep standout Tyson Ward, play for North Dakota State in the Summit League quarterfinals.
The Bison lost but Ward could not leave. A severe snowstorm closed all the roads. He returned Tuesday around midnight.
On Wednesday, Ward decided not to hold practice in the school’s gymnasium. The Terriers (25-5) did not even practice indoors.
Ward took the players to the basketball courts at downtown Tampa’s Perry Harvey Sr. Park. There was no poring over a meticulous game plan. No X’s and O’s. The only thing stressed was taking shots.
Lots and lots of shots.
Ward also watched some video of Friday’s opponent, Choctawhatchee. There was no deep analysis.
“To be honest, I’m more concerned about my team than the opponent,” Ward said.
His methods may be unusual, but they have yielded impressive results.
When Ward was hired in 2014, he inherited a program that won 21 games in the previous four seasons combined. After going 13-13 in Ward’s debut season, Hillsborough has gone on to make three straight region final appearances and is in the state semifinals for the first time since 1996.
Ward’s basketball roots have a lot to do with how he approaches the game.
The former Bradenton Southeast standout spent seven years playing professionally in Europe. His coaching career started at the developmental level at IMG Academy (2001-10) before moving to the women’s ranks as an assistant at St. Leo (2011-12) and Hillsborough Community College (2013-15).
Ward currently is a job developer with the Tampa Housing Authority and vice president of development with the Skills Center in Tampa.
Because of his background, especially in Europe and at IMG, it is easy to see why Ward focuses on fundamentals in practices.
The outdoor session Wednesday was by design.
Ward knows all about how the vastness of Lakeland’s RP Funding Center — with its faraway background of fans and high ceilings — can create problems with depth perception on long-range shots in state tournament games.
To help his team prepare for playing in such a big arena, Ward tried scheduling a practice session at USF. He was willing to pay $150 an hour but the arena was not available.
So Ward did the next best thing.
“The court in Lakeland is dropped into a building with no back wall like we have in most gyms,” Ward said. “On an outdoor court you’re having to deal with the same depth perception. If you can shoot outdoors, you can shoot anywhere. That’s why we had the kids shoot as much as possible.”
The Terriers spent the rest of the week fine-tuning their own game with drills such as finishing at the rim.
Ward has built Hillsborough like a college program and puts a lot of trust into his assistant coaches. That is why he was not too concerned about missing the first two days of practice this week.
“It would be just like a college and a head coach missing a few days on a recruiting trip,” Ward said.
The state semifinals have been elusive for Ward as a player and coach.
He played with former Louisville standout Cliff Rozier in the early 1990s at Bradenton Southeast, but they never made it to the final four.
The past two seasons, Ward and the Terriers lost in the region final by a combined six points.
Ward’s only experience at state was as a dad watching his son play for Tampa Prep four years ago.
“I’ve been so close before, and you always look back at what you could done as a coach,” Ward said. “I didn’t want to look back anymore. The kids knew it was our time and we finally broke through.
“But we don’t want this to be the end result.”
At RP Funding Center (formerly the Lakeland Center). Admission is $10 pregame, $13 at the gate; parking is $10.
Class 7A: Hillsborough vs. Fort Walton Beach Choctawhatchee, 10 a.m. Friday
Class 8A: Pompano Beach Blanche Ely vs. St. Petersburg, 4 p.m. Friday