By BOB STRICKLEY
PDT Sports Editor
From the day Abby Ballman walked into Frank and Janis Waller Gymnasium at Shawnee State, Robin Hagen-Smith knew there was something about her that normal freshmen did not have.
Hagen-Smith, SSU’s NAIA Hall of Fame basketball coach, has seen her share of outstanding players step into her program and bide their time as underclassmen learning how to lead, but Ballman arrived on campus with a reputation as a leader and leaves campus with her legacy cemented as one of the program’s best all-time players.
“It started during her recruitment,” Hagen-Smith said. “Her leadership skills were the first thing her high school coach said about her.”
It did not take long for the 5-10 Ballman, recruited out of Mother of Mercy High School in Cincinnati, to make an impact.
She contributed to the Bears’ perfect regular-season mark of 29-0 in the 2008-2009 season and stepped into the lineup after an injury to help the Bears to a National Championship appearance in the 2009-2010 season.
“She’s an unselfish player and made everyone better,” Hagen-Smith said. “We recruited her as a No. 3 but she moved to No. 1 after an injury and led us to the National Title game.”
Ballman set the program record for single-season steals in her sophomore season and then tied it in her junior season with 117. Her career total in steals is also a program record that was set her senior season with 372.
Through her career, she racked up award after award and led her team to two Sweet Sixteens, two Fab Fours and a National Championship runner-up finish. She was the unquestioned leader of the Bears and was a player Hagen-Smith could lean on as a coach on the court.
As a senior, she was named First Team All-America and First Team All-Mid-South Conference. Everywhere the Bears traveled, she was recognized as an outstanding player.
“We would travel, playing teams from all over and people from across the country that would see her play would come up and say, ‘Man, I really love your point guard,’ ” Hagen-Smith said.
Her swan song in the 2011-2012 NAIA Division I tournament, SSU’s first appearance in the Division I tournament after jumping from Division II before the start of this season, perhaps embodied her run as a Bear better than any statistic or award could.
Ballman suffered a broken arm before the tournament and needed surgery to repair the fracture. It was expected by the team’s medical staff, coaches and teammates that she would miss the entirety of the tournament.
“She had surgery that Monday and everybody told her she was done,” Hagen-Smith said. “She refused to believe that.”
Ballman did some research on braces she could wear to protect the six pins and a plate that had been inserted into her arm and came to Hagen-Smith at practice and asking her coach to throw her a pass.
“I didn’t want to hurt her so I threw one to her lightly,” Hagen-Smith said. “She tossed it back and said, ‘Throw it to me harder coach,’ and I did. I told her I needed her to catch a skip pass and she did it.”
Each day the senior, a player whose impact Hagen-Smith described as immeasurable, would come to practice and be told the injury would keep her from performing a task required as the team’s point guard. Each day she would do said task.
“The last day before the tournament I told an assistant to test her arm by really giving her a hard pass and when he did, she bent over crying in pain,” Hagen-Smith said. “We knew that was it for her but she came back later and told me she had it figured out.”
Ballman had determined if she kept two of her fingers down, she could wear her brace and play with a tolerable amount of pain.
“She said, ‘If I keep my pinky and ring fingers down I’m fine. I’ll just keep them down when I’m playing defense,’ ” Hagen-Smith said.
Ballman came back for the Bears’ two NAIA Tournament games and average 13 points, 2.5 rebounds, 1.5 steals and 1.5 assists in the tournament and shot 50 percent from the field with a broken arm.
“I told the players they were experiencing something that would be featured in a documentary some day,” Hagen-Smith said. “She just wanted it so badly.”
In the SSU’s second game of the NAIA Tournament, the Bears were down at the intermission to the 2010-2011 National Champions Asusa Pacific and Hagen-Smith addressed her team.
“I told them that if they didn’t want to go back to Portsmouth, they would have to rebound,” she said.
Hagen-Smith recalled that Ballman, later in the game and heeding her coach’s request, skied above her opponents and pulled down a one-handed rebound.
Earlier in the month in the Mid-South Conference Tournament against rival Rio Grande, SSU junior Alex Pohl had broken the program’s single-game record for the most rebounds with 24 but Hagen-Smith said she would never forget Ballman’s one-armed snag against Asusa Pacific.
“She brought that ball down like it was all that mattered,” Hagen-Smith said. “That is the type of player she was.”
Ultimately, the game was Ballman’s last as a Bear as they fell 67-61.
Despite playing in only two games, Ballman won the NAIA Tournament’s Hustle award. A testament to the dedication and drive she displayed in the Bears’ two appearances.
“She left a lasting impression on the people at that tournament to win a Hustle award after playing in just two games,” Hagen-Smith said.
For all her achievements, Ballman’s jersey is being displayed in the Shawnee State Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame’s “Ring of Honor.” A tribute fitting of a player Hagen-Smith ranked in the top two of those she has coached.
“Erica Hayes was the Player of the Year in 1999 and Abby is absolutely right there with her as the most decorated player I have had,” Hagen-Smith said.
According to her coach, Ballman’s plan after graduation is to be a U.S. Marshal, a fitting transition for someone who displayed such authority on the court.
“If she doesn’t get the call and I get to have her around another year to help out as an assistant it would be crucial for our point guards we are bringing in,” Hagen-Smith said. “Other players will need to step up and maybe we will focus on other positions without her.”
Ballman finished seventh on the all-time roster at SSU with 1,410 points. She earned Third Team honors last season and is only the sixth Bear to earn the status twice in a career.
No matter Ballman’s future, the footprints she has left at Shawnee State will endure the test of time.
“She’s Abby Everything,” Hagen-Smith said.
Bob Strickley may be reached at 740-353-3101, ext. 203, or firstname.lastname@example.org.