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March 5, 2024

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Jalen Ward stands tall for La Center football

Senior has helped lead Wildcats into 1A state playoffs

By , Columbian staff writer
4 Photos
La Center senior Jalen Ward smiles after scoring a touchdown Friday, Sept. 8, 2023, during the Wildcats' 24-8 win against Woodland at La Center High School.
La Center senior Jalen Ward smiles after scoring a touchdown Friday, Sept. 8, 2023, during the Wildcats' 24-8 win against Woodland at La Center High School. (Taylor Balkom/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

LA CENTER — Jalen Ward’s eyes widen and smile lights up when he’s asked about his stature.

That’s because he’s proud to stand 5 feet, 6 inches and weigh 155 pounds as the 1A Trico League’s co-MVP this season after leading the La Center Wildcats back into familiar territory — the Class 1A football state playoffs Friday night.

The undefeated Wildcats (10-0) host Omak (6-4) at 6 p.m. at La Center Community Stadium in the opening round.

La Center last reached the state quarterfinals in 2017 — the year it reached the state semifinals — and the winner of Friday’s game likely has a date with top-seed Royal next weekend.

Ward is one of the Wildcats’ four seniors — the fewest seniors in coach John Lambert’s 25 seasons. He joins four-year starter at tackle Ryan Kawalek, all-league linebacker Austin Nixon, and quarterback Garrett Maunu, who sustained a season-ending collarbone injury in Week 3.

And then there’s Ward, a multi-year starter at running back and safety who squats 405 pounds and admits he’s been the same height since freshman year of high school.

“It’s kind of funny, though,” Ward admitted, “because until I got to high school, I really didn’t think I was that small.”

But watch Ward play, and it’s more like seeing a 5-10, 200-pounder go to work. It all starts with Ward’s frame of mind.

“You can’t play like you’re 5-6,” he said, “because you’re going to get treated like you’re 5-6. … I think it really comes from my dad and brother. They’ve always been kind of tough on me, and I think that’s really what put that mentality in me.”

Don’t let his size fool you, because more often than not, it’s Ward who has the last laugh.

Lambert said what separates Ward from other ball carriers is his yards after contact and how Ward eludes defenders before getting that first contact.

“He’s not the fastest guy on the field,” Lambert said, “but if you’re in a phone booth with him, you’re going to have a hard time touching him. He’s really quick.”

Ward knows a bit about the running back position from his own household. Older brother Izaiah Ward, a 2018 graduate of Prairie, was an all-league running back for the 3A Falcons. Same positions played, but contrasting styles of play, the younger Ward said.

“He was a human joystick,” Jalen Ward said. “I’m more of a ‘get it done any type of way.’ ”

Ward likes to model his game after a number of current NFL running backs. One of them happens to be Dallas Cowboys rookie Deuce Vaughn, who at 5-5, is proving size doesn’t matter at the highest level of football.

Of course, being undersized, Ward said, has its advantages at the high school level, too. Like playing behind a beefy La Center offensive line, powered by Kawalek, the three-time Trico League’s lineman of the year bound for Idaho. That can reap the benefits for Ward.

“I don’t think (the defense) can see me a lot of the time,” he said.

That’s good news for the Wildcats, as Ward plays offense, defense and special teams. Ward has 885 yards rushing and 11 total touchdowns on the season, including a 10-carry, 152-yard performance in last week’s 50-7 district-crossover win over Elma to reach the state playoffs.

Lambert said the soft-spoken Ward is respected by teammates not only for how he practices and plays, but also for his work ethic away from the field.

“He’s the kind of individual that cares for other people and dreams of playing (football) in college,” Lambert said. “I don’t think there’s a kid that loves football more than Jalen Ward.”