Charlotte Hounds attacker Justin Ward has always had a “pass-first” approach to any sport he’s played.
That’s led Ward to become a record-setting player with former NCAA men’s lacrosse champion Loyola (Md.), and now on the verge of setting another record in his rookie season in Major League Lacrosse.
In just eight games with the Hounds, Ward has 12 goals and a team-best 17 assists, just two away from tying the team record of 19, set by Matt Danowski in 2012.
“My goal is to keep the game as simple as possible,” Ward said. “You don’t see me out there trying to make unbelievable plays. It’s really about finding the open guy, passing the ball and being a good team player. When I’m called upon to put the ball in the back of the net, I do my best.”
A third-round pick in the 2014 MLL collegiate draft, Ward has adjusted quickly to the pace and physicality of MLL play – he’s had three assists in five games this season and scored three goals in a game twice – and has become a leading candidate for the league’s rookie of the year award.
“Justin’s had a tremendous impact on our team,” Hounds coach Mike Cerino said. “His physicality was kind of surprising – he’s gone after and been very physical with some of the best defensemen in the league.
“His assist ability, decision making and finishing ability I was comfortable with, but I did not expect him to be as aggressive early on. He’s a very determined young man.”
Ward’s “pass-first” mentality came naturally, but it was reinforced by something his father, John, did when Justin first took up lacrosse as a youth.
“Some kids would get rewarded for goals,” Justin Ward said. “My dad kinda flipped that – for every goal, I’d get $1, but for every assist I had, I’d get $2 or $3.
“That’s not the big reason I prefer to distribute the ball. I’ve always heard that the team that passes the ball the best is the team that’s going to make the fewest mistakes, and typically win the game by taking the best shots.”
That approach led to Ward putting up 120 career assists at Loyola – the most by a Greyhounds player since the team stepped up to NCAA Division I in 1982 – and an NCAA championship in 2012.
Now Ward is being looked at to do the same for the Hounds, who will miss out on the MLL playoffs this season after playing for the league title last year.
“It really took us until late in the season where we got our chemistry to really click,” Ward said. “But in this league, success comes to those who are the most consistent and make the fewest mistakes, and that’s something we’re struggling with right now.
“For me, the game’s really easy when I’m able to just pass the ball and let my teammates do a great job of dodging hard and drawing the (defensive) slide. If they’re looking for me, then I can find that open guy.”
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