Lyrics to a Tupac song drown out the sounds of Beeghly Center when Youngstown State University senior guard Ashen Ward zones in on his target during practice: the hoop.
Ward is playing in his final season as a college player, but growing up, if Ward had a say in the matter, he might not be playing basketball.
“Growing up, I loved football; that was my passion,” Ward said. “I wanted to play, but the games were always on Sundays, and my mom made me go to church, so I settled for basketball, and I have grown to love it.”
Ward grew up in the heart of Cleveland with his parents. He said he looks to his father for advice.
“My father is my hero. I love him,” Ward said. “He has always been a great example for me, taught me what it is like to be a man, how to better yourself every day.”
It wasn’t until Ward turned 10 years old that he first started to play basketball. His uncle, who was a coach for the girl’s high school team in Cleveland Heights, was the first person to show him the game.
“He really put the ball in my hands for the first time and had me doing dribbling drills,” Ward said. “I just fell in love with the game once I got to middle school.”
As a senior at Villa Angela-St. Joseph High School, he was named third-team Division III All-Ohio and McDonald’s All-American.
In his junior season, he was named the Division III Ohio Player of the Year and first-team All-Ohio selection while averaging 14.7 points and six rebounds per game.
“I loved being the young pup on the team,” Ward said. “My sophomore year playing varsity, I got to look up to guys like David Lighty, Jimmy McCloud, Darryl Rushton, and I got to see how much they love the game and kind of joining them on the court was a great experience.”
After high school, Ward received numerous offers from different universities, but ultimately decided YSU was the best fit.
“I loved that they were open to me,” Ward said. “At that point, I thought that I really wanted to come to Youngstown. It was close to home.”
YSU head coach Jerry Slocum said Ward is everything he looks for in a player.
“He encompasses what’s great about college basketball,” Slocum said. “He’s a great student, a great student-athlete in terms of caring about the program. But the thing that’s been so great for us is the leadership he has given us.”
Ward improves his game by watching professional players go to work. Being the diehard Cleveland fan he is, Ward watched and idolized former Cavalier star LeBron James.
Since James took his talents to South Beach with the Miami Heat, Ward now looks elsewhere.
“I had to divorce [James] like the rest of the world,” Ward said. “Kobe [Bryant] has always been a role model of mine. His work ethic, when you see a guy that works harder than everyone, and it shows on the floor, you can’t help but love that.”
Going into his senior season, Ward transformed himself into a leader on and off the court.
“I believe what I do, and the example I set, helps them become leaders themselves,” Ward said. “That’s the best thing I can do for when I am gone. To see [sophomore guard] Kendrick Perry yelling at guys the way I do, it is a good feeling.”
Perry said Ward has taken him under his wing since he arrived at YSU.
“As a freshman, everything is new to you,” Perry said. “He told me about how the work ethic has to increase. You just have to be hungry.”
Slocum said he couldn’t ask for a better leader.
“He is the voice of practice every day,” Ward said. “He has been a great leader, probably one of the best I have had since I have been here.”
Perry agreed with Slocum’s thoughts on Ward’s leadership.
“I can definitely see that,” Perry said. “Every day he is vocal. He is pushing guys to their full potential to make them better. You need someone like that to just stay on you to make sure you aren’t taking days off.”
During this season, Ward has gone through periods of highs and lows.
Ward shot 1-16 with four points during a three-game stretch in December. In a road game at the University of Akron, he played a season-low 16 minutes and scored zero points. He said it was a tough period in his career.
“At that time, I was really looking at myself and saying, ‘What do I want out of my senior year?'” Ward said. “I had to talk to people close to me. Talked to my mom, she always encourages me. I think I might have put a little too much pressure on myself.”
Ward took the advice and began playing to his potential. He has scored double figures in seven straight games and was named Horizon League Co-Player of the Week on Jan. 9.
In the Penguins’ win at Cleveland State University on Dec. 31, Ward scored 15 points and hit three 3-pointers. He said it was one of the best moments of his YSU career.
“Going in there, not many people believed we could beat them, but we knew we could, and that was a total team effort that we showed,” Ward said. “I even made some big shots down the stretch, which was nice in front of my friends and family.”
On the season, Ward is averaging 11.2 points, 4.5 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game. He ranks 14th in the conference in scoring and 12th in 3-pointer percentage at 38.
Slocum said the team wouldn’t be where it is without Ward.
“In my heart, that guy is our most valuable player,” Slocum said. “He’s got heart; he leads us. He has had a great senior year.”
As a special education major, Ward would love to become a teacher and help kids if he does not continue playing basketball. He said being around kids and helping them is a passion he holds.
Yet, there is another option that brought a smile to Ward’s face: joining the YSU coaching staff.
“That would be nice. I wouldn’t mind it at all,” Ward said. “Put me on that staff over here would be pretty cool.”