OKEMOS – When Darus Ward caught wind of the coaching vacancy for the Okemos girls varsity soccer team he applied with minimal expectations.
The 24-year-old native of Liberia, a West African country on the coast of the Atlantic Ocean, had experience. He coached the Haslett boys varsity team for the past two seasons, but he didn’t think he would be considered for such a highly sought-after position at this stage of his career.
“I’m a young guy — I didn’t think I was getting the Okemos job,” Ward said. “It’s probably the best job in the area.
“But I applied and met with the hiring committee and presented what I wanted to do in terms of keeping up tradition and making the program better.”
Ward was chosen to replace former coach Brian Guggemos, who stepped down for family reasons. Guggemos, in his five years at the helm, led the Chiefs to a Division 1 state championship, a regional title, and two district crowns.
Ward knew his new gig would come with high expectations.
“All the people might bring on the added pressure, but for me it’s about working hard every day and making sure you’re doing the right thing for the kids and that they’re having fun,” he said. “We have good, intelligent players. If the players can adapt to what we’re doing, which they are every day, I don’t feel any pressure.”
His players, however, have taken on that burden.
“I feel pressure for him because you obviously don’t want to come in here and ruin what a great coach has built up,” senior forward Erin Doster said. “We want to win for him, and we want win for ourselves, too. Not just because he’s a new coach but because we’re Okemos.”
It was just a few years ago that Ward, who played club soccer at Michigan State University, was going through similar trials and tribulations on the pitch as the kids he is now coaching.
“He is still at the age where he remembers what it feels like,” Doster said. “He played club in college so he knows what it’s like to be coached and struggle as a player and try to learn.
“He understands that we’re still young and we’re still learning the game.”
The Chiefs are out to a 5-1 start, and with each game, players — particularly the seniors — become more comfortable with the change in personality and ideas coming from the sideline.
“Now that we have some games under our belt (the transition) is definitely getting easier,” senior goalie Vanessa Nigg said. “We’re able to trust one another, from the freshmen to the seniors.”
Doster added: “Everybody has their own coaching style. A coach might yell at you, but it’s not because they’re mad at you, it’s because they want the most out of you. Seeing how he wants us to work hard, learning his little signals that we’re doing something wrong or right … We’re starting to pick that up.”
Okemos’ ultimate goal of a state championship didn’t alter with the hiring of a new coach.
And for the seniors, who will only spend a few short months with the program’s new coach, they want to help usher in a new era on their way out the door.
“We want to set a good tone for his coaching career here,” senior Erin O’Connor said. “But we want to win for ourselves, too. Especially the seniors.”