Originally Published: June 5, 2000 7 p.m.
The year 1975 could be considered the most important turning point in the history of Yavapai College athletics.
That spring, the underdog Roughrider baseball team, led in sport as well as spirit by unyielding head coach Gary Ward, pulled off one of the more remarkable feats of its era with an unlikely NJCAA World Series title.
Clinched in just the baseball program's fifth season of play, the Roughriders earned the school's first such national title. And before the same baseball program would win two more NJCAA Championships (1977, 1993), and long before the Yavapai soccer program, inaugurated in 1989, would earn the school three more NJCAA Championships in the 1990s, the '75 baseball team exposed the nationally-anonymous face of little Yavapai College in even-littler Prescott, Ariz.
In short, the 1975 NJCAA World Series title literally put Yavapai on the collegiate sports map, paving the way for future athletic successes, recruiting, visibility and reputation.
But the real turning point had actually come two years earlier. Two years before the Roughriders would rally past defending champion Merrimack (Mass.) in the bottom of the eighth inning on what would turn out to be the game-winning base hit by Chino Valley' Danny Rees. Two years before a police escort returned the Roughriders' bus to campus where a crowd had gathered to meet the team.
Two years earlier, Ward had faced the toughest crossroads of his professional life and came out on top. One man's choice of one journey over another set the stage for the future of Yavapai baseball, the future of Oklahoma State University baseball, and the future of Gary Ward.
The early years of Yavapai baseball weren't quite so rosy.
As part of the school's founding faculty in 1969, Ward ran the Roughrider baseball program out of the Old Armory on Gurley Street, awaiting completion of the new campus facility. Then in the team's first season, in 1970, the 'Riders christened Ken Lindley Field (then known as City Park) and its 220 right-field line as their home field.
All went well in the first couple groundbreaking seasons where the Roughriders finished a combined 60-31. But 1973 would bring changes. A typical Prescott rain-soaked spring trampled Yavapai's outdoor playing time and should have marked an omen of the dark cloud hanging over the Roughriders and their head coach.
Discipline problems soon engulfed the Roughrider dugout and YC limped to a disappointing 21-14 mark in '73.
And while Ward was balancing his full-time teaching duties, raising a family, managing the baseball team and assisting head coach Dave Brown with the men's basketball team, something had to give.
So that spring, Ward interviewed with Eddie Sutton at Arkansas and with Jerry Hale at Oral Roberts – both for the vacant head coaching positions, in basketball.
Basketball, temporarily, was where Ward's future lay.
But like a sign from above, Ward was turned down for both jobs. Suddenly, his coaching career in baseball looked resurrected.
Even if he wasn't sure himself just yet.
"When I came back I walked those mountains up around Thumb Butte for about two weeks and came in and talked to my good friend Brown and resigned the basketball portion of it," remembered Ward, who freely admits years later that he was as good as gone from Yavapai – and from baseball – had one of the two basketball positions come through.
"That was a very strong turning point. I just had a sense that I had the work ethic and capability of doing something but realized I couldn't do both (sports) year round."
"And baseball seemed to be the most stable at the time. I'd always thought that I would spend my career in basketball, so it was a momentous decision for me on a personal basis."