By Chris Yow
LYNNVILLE — As a freshman at Richland High School, Stevie Ballinger was the first one into the gym before games and practices, but he was there to sweep the floor with the dust mop.
The 300-plus-pound ninth-grade student just wasn’t cut out to suit up for the Raiders’ basketball team.
That setback wasn’t going to stop him from reaching his goal, though.
He tried out but never made the junior high basketball teams. A schedule mishap, as he calls it, landed him in the gym just before basketball practice, and that’s when coach Jason Loveless offered him a spot as a team manager.
That season, Ballinger would film more than 30 basketball games for Loveless’ team, showing up early and not leaving until well after everyone else — including Loveless.
“As a manager, after the team was long gone, he would be out there shooting,” Loveless said. “It made me feel bad that I wasn’t putting in enough work. He spent as much time in the gym as a manager as most players do.”
That hard work paid off, and as a sophomore he’d worked his way onto the team, though he was not expected to contribute on the floor. His work ethic had not gone unnoticed.
“I love basketball,” Ballinger said. “I just wanted to improve myself and find a way to help the team. I put in a lot of work even before I was the manager.”
Loveless could see the vision Ballinger had for himself, and respected the effort he put into realizing that vision. As a junior, he began to see some action on the floor, helping his team to a sectional berth and laying the groundwork for this season.
“He lost 70 pounds. He would just run and run to get his weight down to where it was a playable weight,” Loveless said. “Going into this season, we knew he could be our force in the middle.”
Getting on the floor wasn’t enough for the senior big man. He wanted to make sure he was in the best shape he could possibly get in to get his team over the edge. Nothing was going to stop him.
“Over the last year, I would go to Muletown Rec and run and play basketball. I would run three or four miles a day and eat right,” he said. “I had a week in the beginning of the season where I had to quarantine, but I still ran.”
Ballinger is part of another big senior class that includes the likes of Daniel Nicholson, Jackson Alsup and Logan Helton. Those players have certainly been leaders on this team, but none of them have had quite the journey Ballinger has traveled.
“It’s so rewarding to see a kid who was willing to film 30 basketball games just for a uniform and to be on the team,” Loveless said. “Knowing that was his vision and to see the effort he put in to get here is rewarding.
“It chokes me up because nothing has come easy for Stevie Ballinger, and he’s a good kid who is very deserving of this success.”
Ballinger is ready to help his team to its first state semifinal berth since 2013 on Wednesday morning at Middle Tennessee State’s Murphy Center, where the Raiders take on North Greene at 10 a.m.
“This is a special team. We have talent and chemistry with a lot of seniors who played together for years,” he said. “They have accepted me on this team, and they know the amount of work I’ve put in.”
Loveless added that Ballinger’s success typically leads to his team’s success, and he hopes Wednesday will be no different. No matter the outcome, however, Loveless will forever cherish having walked alongside Ballinger through the last four seasons.
“Some teams underestimate him, but he’s very important for us” Loveless said. “I’m so proud of him.”