Hayden Ward, who played on back-to-back East Hampton High School state Final Four basketball teams in 2008 and ’09, has kicked it up a notch at Oswego State, which with his considerable help went 21-0 in conference play before sweeping through tournament games this past week with New Paltz, Brockport, and Cortland to become the State University of New York Athletic Conference champion.
The last time the Lakers, who take an overall record of 25-3 into the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s Division III tournament, wound up at the top of the SUNYAC heap was in 1965, almost 50 years ago.
A junior who is 6 feet 6 inches tall and weighs 220 pounds — 20 pounds heavier than he was in high school, “most of it muscle” — Ward has been a force underneath for Oswego State the past two seasons. He was named by the conference’s coaches to the all-SUNYAC first team Monday, two days after his 24-point, 13-rebound performance — his eighth double-double of the season — led Oswego State to a 66-57 win over Cortland in the SUNYAC final. He was named to the all-tournament team, and a teammate of his, Chad Burridge, was named the tournament’s M.V.P.
As a result of its conference championship, Oswego State is one of 62 teams in the nationwide N.C.A.A. tourney, and is to play host this weekend to first and second-round games. The Lakers are to play Endicott (20-8) tomorrow, and, should they win, the Eastern Connecticut State-Medaille winner at home Saturday. Eastern Connecticut takes a 22-5 record into the tournament, Medaille, a Buffalo school, comes in with a 25-2 mark.
Sectional games are to be played at sites yet to be determined on March 9 and 10. The Final Four games are to be played in Salem, Va., at the Salem Civic Center, over the March 16 to 17 weekend.
The affable Montauker said during a telephone conversation Monday that he had been pleasantly surprised to see his family in the stands at the final — “It’s a long trip, eight to nine hours” — and pleased, as well, to receive a congratulatory phone call afterward from his former coach, Ed Petrie, who had watched a Webcast of the game.
It was the third time in a row that Oswego State had beaten Cortland, but going through the league undefeated, said Ward, who has averaged 16 points and 9 rebounds per game, “was by no means a walk in the park — we could have lost a couple of those games.”
Asked to what extent he had improved since his high school days, Ward said, presumably with a slight smile, “I’m a little bit stronger and a little bit smarter.” He had worked hard on his vertical leap off-season, he added.
Petrie, who told this writer that Ward had “played a terrific game,” remarked in the post-game conversation on his protege’s “hard work down low” and on the way he’d gone after rebounds.
Ward’s coach, Jason Leone, had this to say in an e-mail message: “Hayden has had a phenomenal junior season during which his game has reached new heights because of his hard work. In addition, he’s become a more committed defensive player and is more physical around the basket, which has allowed him to shoot more free throws per game and thus improve his scoring numbers. He is an integral part of our team and I’m proud of him.”
When asked about the coming N.C.A.A. tournament, Ward said, “We’ve got a very strong team — we’ve been playing together for three years now. We’re confident. If we play as hard and compete as well as we did in our conference tournament, I think we can play with anybody in the country.”