Jacksonville Sports Day

Weekend Feature: Nelson Ward Fulfills Promise, Earns Bulldog Degree

(Photo by Sean Taylor)

By Abby Fletcher, Georgia Sports Communications

The Georgia Bulldog baseball faithful recognize Nelson Ward has returned to Foley Field. It’s been roughly seven years since the former captain suited up in the red and black as a student-athlete. Now, he’s back in uniform at Foley Field as a student assistant coach.

A three-year starting infielder for Georgia from 2012-14, Ward made his mark as a Bulldog starting his first two season at second base then switching to shortstop in 2014. He played in 149 games and recorded a career .301 batting average, 21 doubles, seven triples and 66 RBI. Ward assisted Georgia in advancing to the Southeastern Conference Tournament in each of his three playing seasons with the Bulldogs and now as a coach too. As a sophomore, Ward set a school record for highest fielding percentage by a second baseman, posting a .987 mark in 2013 with only three errors in 239 total chances.

Ward, a native of Marietta, Ga., was selected as a shortstop in the 12th round of the Major League Baseball Draft in 2014 by the Seattle Mariners. He adjusted well out of college with a breakout season with Bakersfield in the California League in 2015, batting .282 with 12 doubles, six triples, seven home runs and 39 RBI. He credits Georgia and the SEC for preparing him for his professional career.

“A lot of the guys you face in pro-ball you have faced in the last few years in the SEC,” said Ward. “Just having the opportunity to play here and having great coaches to prepare us. It was not really much of a shock at all it just felt like just another day in the SEC.”

That November, Ward was included in a trade by the Mainers to San Diego. He spent the next two years in Double-A with San Antonio and then Arkansas in the Texas League before electing free agency. He played two more years in the Independent Leagues before ultimately choosing to return to Georgia to finish his degree and serve as a student assistant coach.

“I remember before the draft, Coach (Scott) Stricklin said if you promise me that you’ll come back and finish your degree I will support you, and do whatever I can for you,” said Ward. “So, when my career was over, I knew I made that promise to him, and I called him up. I said, ‘Hey Coach I am ready to come and finish my degree,’ and he said that we would love to have you as a student coach. He welcomed me with open arms. It was awesome to come back to get to do this.”

Over the past two years, Ward has assisted in coaching the infielders for Georgia alongside Brock Bennett. He uses his on-field experience and guidance from past coaches to develop the current Bulldogs. Now that he is hitting ground balls instead of taking them, his most important lesson that has been carried over from his playing days which he now reprises for his players, is to slow the game down. He tells the players to think about the play before it happens.

“It is definitely a different perspective– I see a lot more things. Thinking back now, it is like wow, if I would have looked at the game like I do now, I feel like I would have been a lot better of a player. It is funny the things you hear as a player from the coaches that you are now repeating. You’re like man, it would have been really nice to listen to that 10 years ago when I was still playing.”

In the past two seasons with the Bulldogs, Ward has had more on his plate than the average student in the dugout. When he is not at Foley Field, he has been working towards earning a degree in human development and family science.

“It is different because as a student-athlete you’ve got your schedule laid out for you,” said Ward. “You’ve got your classes, you’ve got your tutoring sessions, and your workouts, but as a coach you kind of make that schedule. It is a little easier as a coach to understand when you can do different things because you are making the schedule. Whereas a player your schedule is given to you so you fit in your work when you can. I wouldn’t say easier, it is just different because the schedule is more flexible.”

Nevertheless, Ward kept his seven-year-old promise to Coach Stricklin and earned his degree this spring. Earlier this month, an informal graduation celebration took part before practice. Ward was one of 11 Bulldogs who were honored for completing their degree.

By his side throughout this journey on and off the field has been his wife, the former Emily Quam of Denton, Texas. The pair met in San Antonio when he was in the Padres organization. A former teammate introduced the two who are now coming up on their fourth wedding anniversary. Emily is an educator in the Clarke County School System and a huge baseball fan too.

No one knows what is next for the Ward family, but one thing is certain. Ward kept his promise, and now he has left his mark on the Georgia Baseball program as a player and a coach.

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