On matchday, JMU men’s soccer senior forward Aaron Ward-Baptiste wakes up, has breakfast and then gets his mind on the game. He watches videos of strikers and notes their movement and then pictures himself on the field and thinks about what the game will be like.
This season has seen Ward-Baptiste be one of the main choices for striker, and he’s taken advantage of the opportunity. Through six games, Ward-Baptiste has notched three goals and an assist, and will look to continue to improve the rest of the season. Ward-Baptiste’s versatility gives head coach Paul Zazenski a lot to think about during in-match situations.
“He’s a hardworking, big-bodied target forward,” Zazenski said. “He can do a lot in the buildup play, like playing his back to goal, and can also find spaces in behind defenders. He’s a do-it-all forward.”
When Ward-Baptiste first arrived in the United States, things didn’t start off well. Moving across the Atlantic Ocean came with hiccups, but with time, things smoothed out.
“Aaron’s grown tremendously,” Zazenski said. “When he came in, he was coming from a high level in England and things didn’t come so easy initially, but he’s really worked hard and thought about the game in a different way. That’s really helped him put a final product on the pitch.”
Players and coaches get to see how athletes are from different perspectives. While Zazenski knows what Ward-Baptiste is like from the sidelines, redshirt senior midfielder/forward Billy Metzler experiences the impact his teammate has on the field.
“He’s a different type of player and has really made an impact as far as the type of style we want to play,” Metzler said. “We have a lot of little guys in the midfield, then bigger guys up top and are able to hold the ball and help us move and have an offensive presence against good teams. He’s paved the way for offense to get through the lines and get shots on goal.”
Ward-Baptiste stands at a towering 6-feet-3-inches, the tallest of the JMU forwards. He’s able to make his presence known wherever he goes, but he looks at famous players, both current and retired, to try and emulate his game after.
“My favorite striker ever is [former Brazil forward Ronaldo],” Ward-Baptiste said. “I like Marcus Rashford, too, he’s a good player.”
Metzler has been with Ward-Baptiste throughout his entire career at JMU and has seen him develop from when he was a freshman. While the Englishman has grown on the field, Metzler noted improvements Ward-Baptiste has made mentally.
“[Ward-Baptiste] has definitely matured a little bit,” Metzler said. “He used to be complaining when getting his message across, but now it’s more constructive and really helps the team get to the next level.”
When supporters watch a match at Sentara Park, they’ll hear Ward-Baptiste’s voice ring throughout the stadium. He communicates with his teammates in order to help the team reach its highest potential. Once the final whistle is blown, he knows he left it all on the field.
“He plays with a lot of passion on the field,” Zazenski said. “He’s very vocal and wears his emotions on his sleeve, but when he gets into the locker room, he’s more reserved and quiet. Not in a way that’s standoffish, because the guys enjoy being around him.”
When not playing soccer himself, Ward-Baptiste turns his attention back to his homeland. This past summer was filled with excitement for him as his native England danced to the semifinals of the 2018 FIFA World Cup. He couldn’t help but enjoy his country taking the tournament by storm, and at some point was convinced they’d win the entire tournament.
“It was great, I was with [former JMU forward Joe Vyner] and we would watch all of the games together,” Ward-Baptiste said. “It was nerve-wracking because of the past, but it was great.”
In his final year as a Duke, Ward-Baptiste looks to leave his mark on the program. Whether he’s scoring goals or setting up his teammates, he helps the entire team in its pursuit of winning the CAA and making the NCAA tournament.
Contact Noah Ziegler at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more men’s soccer coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.