By Ray Hamill — As she gets set for one more season in high school, McKinleyville senior Ashley Ballew already knows where she’ll be playing softball after graduation.
Ballew, a four-year varsity player for the Panthers, recently committed to play collegiately at College of the Siskiyous, where she’ll be reunited with a couple of her Big 5 rivals, Fortuna’s Renee Metz and Del Norte’s Maddy Haag, who have also committed their futures to the Eagles.
Ballew has long known she wanted to play at the collegiate level, but only recently decided where that might be, announcing her decision at a ceremony held at the McKinleyville High fields in front of friends, teammates and family last month.
“I wanted to go somewhere where I would enjoy playing,” she said. “I haven’t been able to get out to see the campus before COVID, but I’ve been to that area before and I like the town.”
Ballew was first introduced to Siskiyous head coach Jon Cox while playing travel ball in the summer months and has been on the Eagles radar for a while.
And while softball has always been her first choice — and will continue to be — she says she might also play basketball at Siskiyous.
“I know she’s looking forward to her next adventure,” McKinleyville head coach Shanna McCracken said of her senior standout. “And I’m excited to see what she can do at the next level.”
Before making that jump and joining her new teammates in August, Ballew still has some unfinished business locally, where she and her current teammates will begin the new season on Wednesday.
And as for how she wants to close out her high school playing days?
“With a bang,” she said. “I just want to make up for lost time.”
As a sophomore two years ago, Ballew played a pivotal role on a senior-heavy Panthers team that won the Big 5, the H-DNL tournament and a North Coast Section championship, the first time an H-DNL team has ever won such a prestigious treble.
And that’s an achievement Ballew will never forget.
“I’ll definitely remember my sophomore year when we won everything we could,” she said. “I’ll definitely remember that team. That was the closest team I’ve ever been on.”
And she’s been on a lot of teams, first suiting up in T-ball at age 5 and playing Little League baseball until she was 13.
Since then, she has been an ever-present on the Mack varsity team as well as spending her summers competing for the Mad River MIST and the Lost Coast Chaos.
“I definitely have had a lot of fun playing the sport,” she said. “And some of the best people I’ve ever met, I met through sports and softball specifically.
“I’ve had so many great moments in the sport.
“All the trips we took as a team were like family trips. We got to do so much fun things.”
Ballew credits McCracken and McKinleyville assistant coach Drew Riddle for helping shape her game.
“Shanna and Riddle have been super good coaches and super supportive of everything I’ve done,” she said.
And her coaches have seen the growth in Ballew, both as a player and a person.
“She’s starting to realize people do look up to her,” McCracken said. “It is a new role for her.
“I think she’s one of our strongest players. She probably has the strongest arm of just about any girl I’ve ever coached, and she is versatile. She can play catcher and outfield and first base. And her bat, of course has really been impressive.”
As for this season, Ballew is looking forward to the opportunity of getting back out on the field and helping to influence her younger teammates.
“I think we have a pretty young team,” she said. “There are a lot of sophomores, but they’re all really talented. I think we’ll be up there with the better teams.”
Ballew and the Panthers open the season at home to Eureka on Wednesday afternoon.