By John Rohde // SoonerSports.com
Music engulfed Madison Ward’s life long before sports did. She was singing before she could speak full sentences. Her parents occasionally would coax their youngest daughter to stand in front of the fireplace and “show us what you’ve got.”
Once upon a time, Ward thought, “When I’m 15 or 16, I’m going to go on American Idol.” Her mother, Jennifer, had different plans, however.
“I think she has bigger things to do than American Idol,” Jennifer said. “I’m not talking about fame or anything like that. I think Madison has a gift that God has given her and I think it’s going to be used tremendously. She’s got a huge light and I think American Idol is small compared to what she’s got.”
Ward’s light now shines brightly on the Oklahoma volleyball team, for which her athletic alter-ego is beginning to blossom.
I think Madison has a gift that God has given her and I think it’s going to be used tremendously.
Jennifer Ward, Madison's mother
Heading into Wednesday night’s home-opening match against Cal State Northridge at McCasland Field House, Ward leads the No. 24-ranked Sooners in kills (75), total attacks (189) and is second in digs (54).
This comes from a redshirt sophomore who struggled with a torn right (hitting) shoulder throughout high school and arrived at OU still in pain. “I couldn’t even bear making it to the preseason (in 2012), so they thought it would be best to save it,” Ward said.
Nine months of intense rehab followed. As a redshirt freshman last season, Ward was selected to the All-Big 12 Freshman Team. She had double-digit kills in six matches, finished third for the Sooners in solo blocks (11), fourth in total blocks (50) and fourth in kills (159).
Yet Ward said her shoulder still didn’t feel at full strength. “Only now do I feel my shoulder is stronger,” said Ward, who began the 2014 season with a career-high 15 kills against Idaho, increased that career-high to 18 against Georgia Southern later that same day, then had 18 more kills the following day against No. 10-ranked Florida.
Ward envisions great success for the Sooners this season and beyond with a roster that features one senior, three juniors, nine sophomores and six freshmen. “I’m close with all the girls in so many different ways,” Ward said. “It’s kind of beautiful actually. It’s pretty healthy. There’s just so many different relationships for different reasons, different things you go to different people for. We’re not really a team of cliques. We’ve got good chemistry.”
There is serenity in Ward’s voice, and she possesses the same calming influence when she sings. Ward grew up singing alongside her brother, Weston, and sister, Morgan, but Madison never has been part of a band. Ward will serenade upon request and sing a few bars when the urge strikes. She’ll occasionally post a short video on Instagram, leaving her followers wanting more.
“I’m not one to just break out in song and become annoying,” Ward said with a laugh. “A song gets stuck in my head and I might post a video and see if you can figure out who it is. If teammates ask, yeah, I’ll sing something if they want me to.”
Ward is open-minded about music, “But I prefer soul and sultry music, whether it’s R&B, or blues or just good soul music. I’m not really a huge fan of pop-funk. I appreciate it because I love a good beat, but as far as music goes, I really appreciate great musicians. Out of everything, nothing means more to me than gospel. In the beginning, it was church songs at the piano, not figuring out what’s popular. It was always church songs.”
Ward eventually found herself jotting down songs at the dinner table and playing them to family members. Ward is self-taught. She learned piano with her ears and eyes, not with lessons. “I can tell when something’s right or not there, or when the beat is off,” Ward said. She later learned guitar and has added “a little” drums. “Because sports became such a big deal to me, I was never forced into taking music lessons when I was younger,” Ward said. “With my parents, it was always, ‘If that’s something you want to do, then you go ahead and do it.’ ”
I’m a true believer that passion is very contagious. People are going to be attracted to what you’re doing and that you love doing it.
Ward’s bucket list includes two items – to sing the national anthem at an OU football or basketball game, and also to sing the anthem at an OKC Thunder home game – both of which could very well happen someday.
In volleyball, Ward competes. In music, she performs. In neither is she nervous.
“I’m comfortable in different ways with each,” Ward explained. “There’s a confidence aspect you have to have for both, and I’m definitely passionate about both. I’m a true believer that passion is very contagious. People are going to be attracted to what you’re doing and that you love doing it. That’s the same whether you’re in sports, in performing, in speaking, in all kinds of professions.”
Excelling in sports came quickly for Ward. “I’m definitely a gym rat,” Ward said. “I love training and run all the time.”
Ward was a point guard in basketball until volleyball consumed her. It was love at first sight when Ward was first exposed to volleyball in seventh grade. Her athletic resume grew to include volleyball, basketball, golf and track. She tried softball, but it “definitely wasn’t for me. I like a lot more fast-paced sports.” Ward then laughs, remembering her love of golf.
During her junior season in high school, Ward helped lead Cache to the 2010 Class 4A state title. She chose to multi-task her senior year and played volleyball, basketball, golf (the No. 1 bag on the team; has a career-low of 71) and track, where at various stages in life she competed in the 200 meters, 400 meters, hurdles, mile relay, long jump and high jump. She also played three years for the Peak Performance Volleyball elite team.
Ward became extremely close to her brother Weston, who is two years older and also athletic. “Whatever he was doing, I was with him trying to keep up,” Ward said. “I basically grew up playing like a boy in everything. I was taught by him and my dad.”
Their parents instilled at an early age that Morgan, Weston and Madison were not to fight. “As her older brother, I had to protect Madison from everyday stuff,” Weston said. “As we got older, it just carried on. She grew up watching what I would do in sports and she wanted to do it just like me. I don’t want to take any credit for all the hard work she puts in herself, because she definitely goes the extra mile.”
Upon leaving high school, Ward was named Oklahoma Secondary School Activities Association Athlete of the Year, an honor which still leaves her shaking her head. “That one still kind of blows my mind,” Ward admitted. “I never talk about it. It’s just so strange that I got it, honestly. That certainly wasn’t the goal at the time. It just kind of came along with it all. It was a huge blessing.”
Ward has been called a tomboy her entire life and not once considered it an insult. “No, heck no,” Ward said, “but at the same time I do enjoy getting dressed up.”
And when Ward plays dress-up, the results are, um … self-evident. She was crowned homecoming queen at Cache her senior year.
“She cleans up pretty good,” Weston said with a chuckle. “She’s beautiful.”
The 6-foot-1 Ward indeed is a rather “striking” combination, which fits perfectly for her position of outside hitter. “She’s gorgeous,” said Jennifer Ward. “She can look absolutely stunning, then at the same time turn around and kill the ball on the court.”
|About John Rohde|
|John Rohde is a respected name on the Oklahoma sports scene and will provide regular features for SoonerSports.com. Voted Oklahoma Sportswriter of the Year five times, Rohde has covered OU football and basketball, the Oklahoma City Thunder, OKC/New Orleans Hornets, Dallas Cowboys, Texas Rangers, the Final Four, Masters and PGA Tour. He spent over 26 years for The Oklahoman, serving as a columnist and beat writer. He can be heard on 107.7 The Franchise, the flagship station for OU Athletics weekdays from 5:30-9 a.m.|