Ballenger excelled in multiple sportsJuly 14, 2021
By GREG ECKERLE
Jasper’s Mike Ballenger was that rare high school athlete who was among the best in Indiana in three sports.
He was named to the 1981 Indiana Basketball All-Star Team, was Indiana’s first three-time first team all-state baseball player and received major college football offers to play quarterback.
A favorite pastime of Jasper fans back then was debating which sport was Ballenger’s best. But there was little doubt about his most stirring performance.
The 1981 basketball sectional championship game in Huntingburg’s storied Memorial Gym was a classic rivalry matchup between Jasper and Southridge. At 6-foot-3, Ballenger, a sweet-shooting, prolific-passing guard, had already torched Southridge for a then school record 47 points in an earlier 80-75 win in Jasper.
In likely the most important game in Ballenger’s basketball career, he quickly rang up 18 points midway through the second quarter of the sectional final. About that time, Ballenger recalled passing by Southridge Coach Gary Duncan and hearing him say, “Mike, we’re putting two guys on you right now.”
So, Ballenger resorted to passing, as Jasper took a five-point halftime lead. But the double-teaming strategy began to work, as Southridge vaulted to a 53-43 lead with only 5:10 left. Ballenger had not scored in about 15 minutes of game action, but knew it was time to make a move. He followed with an incredible 20-point barrage in the last five minutes as Jasper won, 69-68.
Ballenger’s epic effort included five field goals from long range, three of which would’ve been 3-pointers under today’s rules, and 10-of-10 pressure-packed free throws.
Ballenger was so confident going to the free throw line late in the fourth quarter that he winked at neighbor Kenny Schneider when he spotted Schneider in the crowd behind the basket.
“I kept winking at him, letting him know I was going to hit these free throws,” said Ballenger, now living in Columbus, Ohio. Among the winks were for two free throws with 18 seconds left to put Jasper up, 67-66, and two more to ice the game with five seconds left.
Teammate Ken Schultheis recalled, “In the huddles, we were saying to get the ball in Mike’s hands, because he was hot. He hit big shot after big shot.” Another teammate, Mike Burger, who had a key steal and layup with 22 seconds left, said of Ballenger, “You couldn’t believe from where he was shooting, with guys hanging all over him, and he couldn’t miss.”
Ballenger saw Southridge’s Duncan again about 20 years after the game.
“Coach Duncan said something to me like, ‘you broke our hearts that night, we really thought we had a chance to go a long way, we just could not do anything with you,” recalled Ballenger. “I just appreciate how nice he was about it.”
Ballenger averaged 25.2 points a game in 1981, yet Coach Rex May noted in a 2018 interview, “He wasn’t selfish, he was a team player, he could see the court well, he was just good for me, he made me a coach.” All those qualities had plenty of major college basketball programs offering Ballenger scholarships, including Kentucky, Louisville, Arkansas, Purdue, and Florida.
But Ballenger was pursued for his football and baseball qualities, too. The first scholarship offer he received in any sport was from Indiana University Football Coach Lee Corso, after Ballenger’s junior football season, when he was All State Honorable Mention. The Kansas City Royals baseball club also offered to select him in the player draft, but they wanted a commitment that he would sign a contract.
Jasper’s Don Noblitt, a member of the Indiana Baseball Hall of Fame, said in a 2009 interview, “I think his most talented sport was baseball. As a pitcher, he could throw the ball where he wanted, and he had good speed. And he had natural talent as an infielder, a lot like Scott Rolen, with probably a little more range.” In 1981, Ballenger was one of 12 players from a six-state area named to the District 4 All-Stars chosen by the American Association of College Baseball Coaches. He was picked as the second baseman. Only one other Indiana player was selected.
His football promise accelerated at a Purdue football clinic he attended in the spring of his sophomore year with some Jasper football coaches. Mark Hermann, a 12-year NFL player, was Purdue’s quarterback at the time. Jasper assistant Steve Dills recalled, “Ballenger was running some drills with Purdue players. His delivery, his steps, his motions, you would’ve sworn Ballenger and Herrmann were brothers. And Mike could throw the long ball.”
Ballenger said that day was the first time he felt he was good enough to play college football. Assistant coach Dave Edds said, “If you have to score a touchdown with 30 seconds left, while everybody else is a nervous wreck, the perfect quarterback would come to a sideline timeout and be the calmest guy on the field. That was Mike. Mike had great confidence in his ability. Purdue and LSU recruited him. One college coach told us that he thought Mike could have been a first-round draft pick. He was a natural quarterback.”
But Ballenger had a great love of basketball, so much so that he decided to forego his senior year of football to concentrate on honing his basketball skills.
“I regret not playing my senior year of football,” said Ballenger. “I feel bad. I hate that it ended the way it did. I got so much interest right away (from colleges) for basketball, and so much more interest in basketball than I did the other sports, so that was kind of my concentration. Before my senior year, probably 30 college coaches came to Jasper and said we’ll put you on scholarship for basketball, and I had very few offers for football.”
Mike Burger, a fellow high school football star, said, “Mike’s passion was basketball, so you couldn’t begrudge him for pursuing that. I know it wasn’t an easy decision. I think all of us around him certainly understood it.” Coach Edds noted, “You can’t hold it against him for doing that, you got to do what you love.”
Also weighing in on Ballenger’s decision on whether to choose football, the baseball Royals or college basketball were the thoughts of his late father, Hugh. Hugh had helped Mike every step along the way, encouraging him to practice basketball with older players, throwing him batting practice despite sometimes getting drilled in the legs, and stringing up a tire in their yard so Mike could polish his accuracy with a baseball and football. “My dad was everything, and I loved the idea of seeing how good I could become,” said Mike. Hugh, who grew up in Kentucky, wanted Mike to play basketball at the University of Kentucky, so that’s where Mike announced he was going in March of 1981.
Later that spring, Mike struck out 18 Dubois batters in a 1-0 sectional victory. Afterwards, two of the Dubois players spotted Ballenger in his yard, stopped, congratulated him on pitching a great game and asked him how he threw that hard. “That was kind of touching for them to stop and say some nice things,” said Ballenger. It was a welcome relief after some of the nasty letters Ballenger received earlier after his football decision. He reacted to those as “just part of the deal.”
After Jasper won the baseball regional, another dilemma surfaced. The University of Kentucky reversed its earlier advice to Ballenger that since he had taken the ACT college entrance exam, he didn’t need to take the SAT. Then UK said he needed the SAT as well. There was only one other opportunity, in Bloomington on the morning the baseball semi-state was being played in Jasper.
There wasn’t enough time to return from the test by car, so coach Ray Howard enlisted the help of Jasper businessman Bob Ruckriegel and his helicopter to deliver Ballenger by game time. As the helicopter landed in the field beyond the outfield fence, fans and Jasper’s opponents looked on quizzically. Ballenger knew it was “not going to look that great, and I wasn’t trying to be showy,” but there was no other solution. He then pitched a two-hitter in a 3-0 victory over Mooresville. That night Jasper won the semi-state 3-2 over Evansville Central on a ninth-inning home run by Mike Burger.
That set Ballenger up the next Saturday for a real rarity for a high school athlete, doing double duty in Indianapolis at the state’s highest level of two sports. He pitched in the Final Four of the state tournament in the afternoon, losing a tough 6-5 game to Fort Wayne Northrop. That night Ballenger made both of his shots as the Indiana All-Stars beat the Kentucky All-Stars in the first of their annual two game basketball series. The next Saturday in Louisville Ballenger made all three of his shots as Indiana won again. Many, including UK coach Joe B. Hall, noticed Ballenger didn’t get much playing time from Indiana All-Star coach Gunner Wyman, who was also the Vincennes basketball coach. “After the game at Louisville, Coach Hall asked me why Wyman didn’t play me more,” said Ballenger, with a laugh. “I said, ‘Well, there’s a little bit of a rivalry between his high school and our high school.’ ”
Ballenger played in another rivalry game that December as a freshman at Kentucky, when No. 2 UK routed No. 10 IU, 85-69, at Rupp Arena in Lexington. He learned quickly of the rivalry’s heat. “Before the game, Coach Hall said, ‘If they set an illegal screen, knock them on their (rear),” said Ballenger. “Towards the end, we’re up 18, I get in, and I’m standing at the free throw line next to IU’s Dan Dakich (a former Indiana All-Star teammate). He says, ‘Thanks a lot. Do you realize how bad practice is going to be tomorrow (under coach Bob Knight) after we lose to you guys by 18, it will be torture.’ ”
After his freshman season at UK, Ballenger decided to transfer. IU football coach Corso called, again offering him a football scholarship, although Ballenger hadn’t played football in over two years. Ballenger eventually transferred to Western Kentucky, where he played three years of basketball and baseball. He was Western’s ERA leader in 1985, at 3.19, and in 1986, at 3.74. He ended his collegiate career impressively, pitching a nine-inning 5-0 shutout over number 22 Old Dominion in a conference tournament.
In a 2020 story about Jasper basketball players, Indianapolis Star high school writer Kyle Neddenriep wrote, “Ballenger is arguably the best all-round athlete to come through Jasper.”
While other Jasper multi-sport stars would be in that debate, including Scott Rolen, Paul Hoffman, and Eddie Rottet, Ballenger is certainly on a very short list.
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