Daniel Ward was ready to grow up, explore the country and conquer the world.
Then he discovered that his cozy little world in rural Yolo County was all he really needed.
Now in his seventh season coaching football at his alma mater of Winters High School, Ward recalled growing up in this farming community of some 6,800. He played youth sports, then set passing records for Winters in the late 1990s under coach Jack Delbar, a local legend who led the Warriors to state No. 1 small-school rankings in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
“As a young kid growing up here,” Ward said, “I couldn’t wait to leave. Small town, a world out there so big. I went to college in North Carolina-Greensboro, to live life. That was my plan. Never coming back.”
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But he came back.
“Winters was the only teaching and coaching job I interviewed for,” Ward said. “I love being here, being a role model like those that were role models for me.”
Riding a 10-game winning streak and a season-opening win over Colfax, which is playing in the Sac-Joaquin Section Division V final, Winters is back among the Northern Section elite. Last fall, the Warriors won their first Northern Section championship since 1994, and they now seek a repeat tonight.
The Warriors (11-1) host upstart East Nicolaus (9-3) today in the Division IV title game, the first time Winters has hosted a championship since 1978. Ward expects an overflow crowd, with scores of alumni lining the field as Northern Section small schools traditionally play title games the day before Thanksgiving.
“I love this and I can enjoy Thanksgiving, (otherwise) I’d be on the computer going over film, drawing things up, talking to coaches,” Ward said.
Winters won section titles under the late Delbar in 1976, ’78, ’80, ’81 and ’94. East Nicolaus knows how to play this game, too, having won seven section crowns since 1991 in 15 championship appearances.
“What’s neat is we have a lot of kids whose fathers played on those great Winters teams of the late 1970s and early ’80s,” Ward said. “The dads are more excited than anyone. It’s come full circle.”
Winters is led by record-setting quarterback Jacob Lowrie. The 5-foot-9, 175-pound senior is the Northern Section all-time career total offense leader with 7,107 yards, just ahead of former Quincy quarterback Matt Ray from the 1990s. Ray is now the Antelope High coach. Lowrie also broke Ward’s passing records at Winters this season.
Lowrie has passed for 1,631 yards and 19 touchdowns and he’s run for 1,195 and 19.
“I’ve never coached an athlete like him,” Ward said. “He’s the ultimate competitor, refuses to lose or be tackled; tons of heart.”
The Warriors are led on defense by Chris Kays, a senior defensive end-linebacker who has 191/2 sacks. A Northern Section sprint finalist at 5-11, 190 pounds, Kays lines up wide on the line and races to the quarterback.
“Amazing, and our fastest kid, our strongest kid and a one-man wrecking crew,” Ward said.
Field fun – Bear River, the top seed in the Sac-Joaquin D-V field, will play on artificial grass Friday for the first time this season. The Bruins play Pioneer Valley League rival Colfax at the Grape Bowl in Lodi after 11 games on real grass, including two home playoff games at Lake of the Pines.
“We’ll practice on field turf to get used to it, because it can be a little faster,” Bear River co-coach Scott Savoie said.
Bear River beat Colfax 21-20 on the road in PVL play Oct. 17.
Follow Joe Davidson on Twitter @SacBee_JoeD.