Southeastern volleyball
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Derrick Webb

Derrick is SOSA's chief content coordinator and has worked for the Chillicothe Gazette, the Portsmouth Daily Times and Eleven Warriors. He's a 13-time award-winning journalist, a self-proclaimed baseball purist, a suffering Bengals fan and has never met a stranger.

First-year coach Ashton Ward ready to lead Southeastern into future

Ward replaces Lori Koker, who she played for during her high school career.

Derrick Webb, Staff Writer

Southern Ohio Sports Authority is presented by OhioHealth.

CHILLICOTHE — Life has a funny way of coming full circle and, sooner or later, it always does.

Zane Trace grad Ashton Ward is set to take over Southeastern’s volleyball program. During her playing career, she had over 1,000 career assists and digs before playing at the University of Rio Grande.
Submitted photo

When Ashton Ward was a part of Zane Trace’s volleyball program — from 2013-2017 — her and her teammates were guided by legendary coach Lori Koker.

So when Koker, who has spent the past three years as Southeastern’s head coach, decided to take a step back after last season, and Ward received a phone call from the Hall of Famer, a huge part of Ward’s life instantly came full circle.

“I had been coaching the last few years at various levels of junior high and club volleyball. Coaching high school volleyball has always been a goal of mine, especially in a league as competitive as the SVC,” Ward said. “I just thought it would be further down the road. Coach called me and told me about her decision to take a step back and jokingly said, ‘How about you try to do it?’ I said I wasn’t ready and the timing wasn’t right, but she was determined and told me the exact opposite. The more I thought it over, the more I could see myself coaching and I knew I would regret not taking a chance.”

Ward took the chance and it paid off when the Panthers named her the program’s next leader this past March.

“Volleyball has been such a huge part of my life, given me so many opportunities, gotten me through a lot of hardships, and given me so many lifelong friends,” Ward said. “I want to be able to create a solid program all the way down to the biddy ball level, to give players of all ages more of the same opportunities.”

With plans to continue the winning ways the Panthers have had recently — the team was 40-31 during Koker’s tenure — Ward also isn’t planning to change much when it comes to culture. In fact, because of her relationship with Koker, the transition should be as smooth as silk.

The two think alike, they care about their players in the same manner and they understand what it takes to win matches.

“Through high school, [Koker] had high expectations for us and always held us to a standard. She taught me so many things that are more than volleyball, like if you’re not 15 minutes early, you’re late,” Ward said. “All jokes aside, she’s taught me the fight and she’s shown me more determination than I could ever imagine. I respect her deeply. To be able to take over that role, and now have her as a mentor is something I will forever be grateful for. I hope I am half the coach she is.”

A lot of Ward’s own love for the game, and a passion for the setter position she manned in high school, came from Koker herself.

“I was a freshman with no confidence that had toyed around with setting,” Ward said. “When coach Koker was looking for [a setter], I was next in line. After a few rough summer tournaments, I realized I was going to have to get over it. From there, l took pride in being whatever my team needed at the moment, whether it was being the only setter, setting and hitting, or just playing defense. I finished my high school career with over 1,000 digs and 1,000 assists and went on to play at the University of Rio Grande.”

Ward’s next gig doesn’t come without pressure. 

She’s now back in the spotlight, just in a different way. She’ll be game planning against some of the same coaches and players she played against during her time at ZT.

“This opportunity has definitely humbled me. To play against coaches that have coached me in club volleyball, and coaches that I played against in high school is such a full circle moment. It’s intimidating to say the least,” Ward said. “But the opportunity to coach in a league that I grew up watching my sister play in, played in myself, and one that I’ve watched come together so many times is overwhelmingly amazing. Something else I’m excited for is doing more than just playing volleyball, like holding a youth camp open to all schools, and hosting a camp for Pioneer School students. I hope to do more of those types of things in the future.”

As for on-the-court personnel, Ward will have plenty of options to help her out.

The Panthers bring back six seniors and a handful of starters that pieced together a 16-win season last fall. The team’s leaders in kills, hitting percentage, blocks and assists are all back in the fold.

They begin their season on Aug. 22 at New Hope Christian.

“My expectations are [for Southeastern] to play competitively,” Ward said. “I know by now that in this league, anyone can do anything on any given night. We have six returning seniors, so I’m expecting a lot of leadership. Morgan [Ware] and Jozy [Lougheed] are going to be big hitters for us this year. Jessie Higley is a game changer in the back row. I think we have some players that will surprise people. These girls have worked hard in the weight room and gym all summer and they have the potential to make it a very memorable season.”


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