Former Cocke Co. Standout
Has Worked Hard To Return From Broken Hand That Cut
Her Freshman Season Short
by darren reese
Hard-nosed. Works her butt off. Sets the tone. One tough cookie.
That's how first-year Tusculum softball coach Julie Huebner describes sophomore infielder Nicole Ball.
Ball's blue-collared work ethic helped her earn a starting spot for the Lady Pioneers as a freshman a year ago, but a broken hand prematurely ended her rookie year halfway through the season.
Those same characteristics have helped the Cocke County native bounce back to be, what she hopes, even better than before.
Ball is set to play her first game since last March this Saturday afternoon when the Lady Pioneers open their 2013 season with a home doubleheader against Milligan College. The first game will begin at 1 p.m.
"After sitting out and watching (last season), it made me want to work harder this year," said the 2011 Cocke County High School graduate.
"I wanted to step up and prove to my coaches that yeah, I may be hurt, but I'm going to come back even better. So I hope I've done that."
Ball broke her hand sliding into third base during a game against Georgia College on March 7.
As she proudly states, "I went on to score, so it was okay." She also finished out the game, despite experiencing extreme pain in her glove hand.
She sat out game two of the doubleheader, and didn't play in Tusculum's series against Armstrong Atlantic the following day.
Three days later, there was still no definite diagnosis on her injury so she decided to play in the Lady Pioneers' South Atlantic Conference opener at Newberry.
In the second game that day, Ball - broken hand and all - was 2-for-4 at the plate in a 3-2 Tusculum win.
"Oh, it hurt really bad," she remembered. "But I'm the type of player that if I can play through it, I'm going to play no matter what."
But soon, the pain became too much to bear. On March 17, Ball officially went on the disabled list.
The injury would sideline her the rest of the year.
Since then, she has been hard at work - both with the team and on her own - preparing with her sights set on tomorrow's opener.
"I was released at the end of May," she noted. "I did a lot of hand strengthening. I was working on getting flexibility back."
"It was a struggle at first, and I still deal with it today."
Ball experiences lingering hand cramps from the injury, but she has learned play through them.
"I'm not even 20 yet and I'm already dealing with arthritis," she laughed. "I've had to deal with that a lot during the offseason."
Even though she wasn't able to contribute on the field for the second half of last season, Ball still tried to find ways to make an impact.
And that mentality has carried over to this year, as her sophomore class looks to carry some of the leadership responsibilities for a roster that consists of just two seniors and four juniors.
"Our freshman group outnumbers the upperclassmen," Ball pointed out. "So as a sophomore, I feel like we sort of need to take (the younger players) under our wing and try to show them what to do and what not to do."
"I'm not a very vocal leader, but I try to lead by example. If any of my teammates need help, if they need encouragement, I'm always there for them. They always know that they can talk to me."
Ball will start the season at third base, but could see time at other infield positions as need - particularly second base.
Huebner has been so impressed with Ball that she hopes her sophomore infielder's personality will somewhat be adopted by the entire team.
"Nicole takes no one's crap," the coach grinned. "She just plays fearlessly. She is a great kid and she works her butt off."
"She is the kind of player everyone should aspire to be like."
Before her injury, Ball was batting .280 with 14 runs scored and 12 RBIs. One of the highlights of her freshman season came when she blasted a two-run homer in the seventh inning to lead Tusculum to a 3-2 win over perennial region power USC Aiken.
Opposing conference coaches obviously liked what they saw of Ball during her abbreviated season. They voted her to the Preseason All-South Atlantic Conference second team earlier this week.
But for Ball, her main concern is helping her team win.
"This year, we have said that we want to win the SAC," she noted. "I do believe that is possible."
"We have a bunch of great softball players. I think if we keep our heads on straight and well all focus on the same goal, it can happen."