Being a tag-along little sister helped Kayleigh Ward emerge as a scoring force for Liberty’s state championship field hockey team

by Katherine Dunn

As a second grader, Kayleigh Ward wanted to do everything her big sister Branin did. That proved extremely fortunate for Liberty’s field hockey team seven years later.

Kayleigh Ward, who has helped Liberty’s field hockey team win two state championships, followed her sister Branin into the game and emerged as a key finisher and one of the leading scorers in Carroll County.

With the Ward sisters in the lineup, the Lions have won three state championships in the past four years. Branin helped them to their first title in 34 years as a junior in 2016. The sisters played together on the 2017 final four team and Kayleigh’s finishing touch helped the Lions win state titles again in 2018 and 2019.

For Kayleigh, who will be a senior this fall, it all started when she followed Branin from soccer to field hockey.

“I was the tag-along little sister,” Kayleigh said with a laugh. “I was always tagging along with her and her friends… My sister quit soccer and decided to play field hockey, so I finished my last year of soccer, and I was like, ‘I think I should just play field hockey like my sister,’ because I always looked up to her and ever since I’ve stuck with it. As she did club I did club too, so I’m following in her footsteps.”

Kayleigh admitted that, at times, wanting to follow along wasn’t always popular with a sister three years older, but as they got older, the sisters bonded over field hockey.

“A lot of things I would do, she would also do,” said Branin, “but she was obviously amazing at [field hockey]. She picked it up quick and it was something that she became passionate about as well and it’s nice to be able to have that shared interest between us as we grew up. Even though I’m older than her, a lot of things she does inspire me as well.”

While Branin excelled as a midfielder, Kayleigh moved to the forward line at Liberty and emerged as one of the program’s top scorers.

Last season, she scored 16 goals. She’s scored some of the biggest Lions’ goals of the past two years, including five in the state semifinals and finals over the past two seasons.

As a sophomore, she scored the only goal in the state title victory over Hereford and scored the first goal in the 2-1 win over Glenelg in the semifinal. Last fall, she scored three goals in the 5-0 state semifinal victory over Patuxent. She finished the 2019 season with 16 goals as the Lions went 18-0 and earned Varsity Sports Network’s No.1 ranking.

It didn’t take long for Liberty coach Brenda Strohmer to move Kayleigh from the midfield, where she had played for her club team, to right wing.

Kayleigh wasn’t so sure about the move at first.

“I honestly didn’t know if I would be good at frontline or not. One of the first games, Miss Strohmer put me on the right wing. She said my speed and stick skills were able to get the ball up field and ever since then I stuck with it,” she said.

Kayleigh plays for the Baltimore Stix club and by the time she was a freshman in high school, she was ready for a major role on the Lions’ varsity.

“She was confident,” said Branin. “Having grown up with me, she always would play up. Sometimes if we needed her during one of my (club) practices, she would play with us. Always playing with people that would be a little bit above her level when she as at a younger age, coming into high school, she wasn’t intimidated at all by the older players. I think that enabled her to perform without cracking under pressure.”

Strohmer said she had a strong returning midfield when Kayleigh arrived as a freshman, but she wanted her on the field.

“She was just a good finisher,” Strohmer said. “She has very good hand-eye-stick coordination and that’s what makes her good at that spot… She’s really got the knack. The winning goal against Hereford was just a tap, just a deflection and she’s really good with that. She’s had a lot of game winners that way.”

Kayleigh and Strohmer said it took a while for her to get over the inclination to swing at the ball when trying to redirect a pass, something most young players do although it’s more likely the stick will pass over the ball than make contact.

“We practice a lot someone driving the ball in and just having our stick down and watching the ball hit the stick,” Kayleigh said, “because so may people, including me, swing at the ball and that’s how I miss it. We focus so much on watching the ball hit our stick before we actually try to give it power, because sometimes, you don’t need power. All it takes is a deflection to make it go in.”

As a sophomore, Kayleigh switched from the right wing to left wing, but it hasn’t slowed her scoring down. She’s also adept at switching from the artificial turf her club team plays on to grass, the home field surface for all Carroll County public schools, and back to turf for the state playoffs.

Her Liberty teammate Caitlynn Szarko said Kayleigh cleans up a lot of shots headed wide.

“No matter how bad the shot is, she can get it in. She’s tapped in some crazy shots. I don’t know how she does it,” said Szarko, a junior forward. “If I’m shooting the ball from the top of the circle and it’s going two feet wide of the cage, I can trust Kayleigh to put it in the right direction. I don’t think a lot of people can do what she does. She just makes it look natural.”

While stuck at home during the COVID-19 pandemic this spring, Kayleigh has continued to work on her stick skills and conditioning, preparing for the fall season. She and some of her teammates meet twice a week to work on conditioning.

She’s been able to return to her job as a lifeguard at a neighborhood pool which recently reopened, but she would also like to be on the field with her Lions teammates.

Normally, the team would be together three times a week for conditioning and the Lions would be playing summer league field hockey.

Like Branin, who will be a junior at Maryland in the fall, Kayleigh doesn’t think she wants to play field hockey in college. With a 3.9 GPA, she prefers to focus on academics and have time for other aspects of campus life, so she wants to get the most from her senior year on the hockey field.

After graduating four key midfielders or attackers — Meghan Huey, Christine Goetz, Caroline Evans and Riley Pardoe — Kayleigh knows the Lions will rely on her leadership on and off the field, so she’s trying to rally the team as much as she can until they can all be together.

Although no one knows how the COVID-19 pandemic will affect fall sports, Kayleigh is preparing as if they will go on as usual. She can’t think about the alternative. She already lost her junior lacrosse season to the pandemic when schools closed in March.

She’s ready to try to add one more state title to the two she’s already won.

“Obviously states is always a goal,” she said. “I don’t know what our other goals will be, because last year, our goal was to go undefeated and the year before it was to win counties and states. We’ll have those goals again, but I think throughout the season we’ll have more goals. One goal is to develop good chemistry, because we’re losing so many people. Communication will be important. I think that builds a team.”

Last year, Strohmer said, Kayleigh grew into the leadership role, another way she followed in Branin’s footsteps. She had always been a leader in the way she played, but as a junior, she began helping her teammates and being more of a coach on the field.

“She’s doing what she’s supposed to do,” Strohmer said. “Her leadership is going to be important because we lost a lot of seniors and we’re going to have some young ones that haven’t been in those roles before. We’re going to have a lot to do and I’m not sure how we’re going to do it, but we’ll manage. A lot will be on her, but she’ll shine.”