Reason to celebrate: Through COVID-19, a derecho and a health scare, basketball uplifts Ballard communities
Ballard senior Molly Ihle was enjoying her first full day as a state champion on March 7.
The Bomber girls’ basketball team had just pulled off a dramatic 47-45 victory over Glenwood in the Class 4A championship game of the girls’ state basketball tournament the previous afternoon. Ihle was still soaking it all in at her home in Huxley when the doorbell rang.
She opened the door and there was little Ballard first-grader Ava Rohden with a cupcake and a trophy she and her mother, Ashley Rohden, had made for Ihle.
“I was so excited and just ecstatic that she did that,” Ihle said. “It made me so happy that she enjoyed the games and loved basketball.”
Ihle and the Rohden family live on the same street, Cedar Lane, in Huxley. Three more Ballard girls’ basketball players — seniors Josie Fleischmann and Ashley Wuestenberg and junior Meg Rietz — live on the same street.
They all got a cupcake and trophy from Ava.
“It made our day when she made us cupcakes,” Fleischmann said. “It reminded us of when we were younger and looked up to the older girls.”
Wuestenberg wasn’t home when Ava delivered her gifts. When she got back and saw the gifts she had to stop over and say thank you to Ava in person.
Ava informed Wuestenberg she played basketball, loved the sport and that her coach said she is "an excellent little hustler." The two sat and talked about the championship game and playing for Ballard.
“It was so sweet of Ava to even think about making us a trophy and cupcake,” Wuestenberg said. “Seeing little kids want to continue the ‘Nobody’ tradition is so awesome and I’m glad they want to be part of such a neat thing.”
Ava Rohden’s gracious gesture is one of many that have been made toward the Ballard basketball teams after what they were able to accomplish the past two weeks at Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines. The Bomber boys followed up the girls’ championship by placing second in 3A last week during the boys’ state tournament.
The acts of kindness toward the basketball teams were well-deserved. The Ballard students have been through a lot the past seven months.
In addition to everything surrounding COVID-19, Iowa was hit hard by a derecho storm in August. Huxley and its surrounding communities of Cambridge, Kelley and Slater suffered a lot of damage, including at the school and many homes and businesses.
'Total devastation':Huxley looks to recover from damage caused by derecho
The storm even left Ballard without a home football field to play on during the fall.
But the communities rallied around each other and pulled through it together.
“It’s amazing sight how our communities worked together,” Huxley Mayor Kevin Deaton said. “I couldn’t be more proud of our townsfolk — they get behind each other in all situations.”
As the winter sports season approached it was clear that both Ballard basketball teams were capable of making deep runs into the postseason. But COVID cases were also rising in Iowa, leaving some doubting there was even going to be a season.
The Ballard athletic department and school district quickly went to work doing everything they could to ensure the safety of their student-athletes and coaching staffs. They also tried to do all they could to prevent any disruptions to the season.
That meant very limited crowds and a lot of extra precautionary measures were needed.
The girls only missed one game and the boys completed their full schedule.
“To see our kids have the success they did in the environment they were not used to was outstanding,” Ballard Athletic Director Nate Boock said. “Having to wear masks at games on a bench that are staggered apart, no one sitting on your home side and only two of your loved ones watching them every game night was a tough situation for all of our athletes to deal with. It does tell me a lot about our athletes and their ability to adapt and overcome and what kind of people we are putting out into our communities.”
Even if they couldn’t attend in person the members of Ballard’s communities made sure they did all they could to keep up with the Bombers.
“I really can't speak enough about our community support,” Boock said. “We always knew, although we had limited capacity, that our community was following the teams closely. We knew live streaming views were high and the buzz around the community about the teams was great to hear.”
The livestreaming helped the Ballard community reach out to one of its own in another show of tremendous unity.
Freshman student Jaxon Hermann had to undergo heart surgery in February.
His older brother Ashton is a starter on the boys’ basketball team. The day before Jaxon was slated for surgery, Ballard hosted Gilbert and the crowd all turned and waved at the camera after the first quarter of the boys’ game to show their support for him.
That is just one of many ways people have offered their encouragement.
“So many have reached out, provided prayers, food and donations,” Hermann’s mother Melanie Hermann said. “The sendoff the day before we left for Omaha was so special for Jaxon as so many cars drove by to give well wishes and support. Small towns are the best at coming together during the most difficult times to support one of their own and we've now experienced this firsthand.”
Unfortunately, Jaxon’s surgery did not go as planned. He has had to deal with continued complications in his recovery and remains in Omaha, though he is steadily improving.
The long road to recovery has been tough on Jaxon and the Hermanns. The Ballard communities have stood by them the whole way.
“We have been overwhelmed and humbled by the amount of support the Ballard and other surrounding communities and schools have shown in the last 40 days for our family,” Melanie said. “During the last month and a half there have been fundraisers and other methods to show support for Jackie. The Ballard wave, bracelets, T-shirts, Jackie Moon stickers on the busses, posters, Hy-Vee ribs/cookies and videos are some of the amazing examples.”
Melanie and her husband Nic both played at the state tournament for Ballard in 1998. Nic and Ashton are the first-ever father-son combo to both play in a state tournament for the Bombers.
Jaxon’s situation prevented them from getting to see Ashton play in person for over a month. But Melanie was able to make it back for the substate final game against Bondurant-Farrar and the first two rounds of state and Nic got to see all three games at state.
“This season was one we had been looking forward to since Ashton's freshman year,” Melanie said. “With everything we have been faced with though, it has put a lot of things in life in perspective.”
Even though Ballard fell just short of a championship after falling to Pella, 78-69, in the title game Ashton put on a show. He averaged 20.3 points at state and was named to the 3A all-tournament team.
“We are so incredibly proud of Ashton and his ability to deal with everything thrown at him with such maturity,” Melanie said. “He is a great kid who has so much love for his family, this team and the game of basketball.”
Ashton and teammate Kale Krogh are a year behind Ballard’s deep and talented group of departing seniors in Connor Drew, Mason Murphy, Isaiah Peasley, Sam Petersen, Kade Miller, Kyler Watson and Alex Upah. When Ashton and Kale were in second grade they went up against a third-grade Bomber girls’ team with some players that turned out pretty good — Ihle, Fleischmann and Sydney Briggs.
The players on both teams have been tight ever since.
“The two teams get along great,” Ballard head girls’ coach Kelly Anderson said. “They have more support for each than I’ve ever seen.”
The COVID restrictions made that bond truly visible this season.
“We supported each other during games a lot when students and the community couldn’t come,” Ihle said. “You could always hear them in the crowd.”
As much as they had each other’s backs, players on both teams were happy to have full student sections and more people able to attend during their postseason runs.
“I got choked up a little bit when we were on the bus leaving town (for the championship game) with the amount of people - we went down Main Street, then kind of turned and headed toward the interstate,” Ballard boys’ head coach Jeff Schertz said. “There were all kinds of kids and families lining the street. I’m walking off the court and some of the elementary kids I teach are yelling my name and some of our eighth-graders that play are in the front row and down the line are the seventh-graders. It was spring break and the students were here and the community was here.”
Deaton said he is hoping in the near future it will be possible to honor the Ballard student-athletes and coaches in person for what they were able to accomplish. Maybe even give Fleischmann the key to Huxley for her legendary 25-foot game-winner against Glenwood.
“I’m hoping to get back to some normalcy,” Deaton said. “I want to get these kids some recognition.”
But the Ballard faithful have already made the last month an unforgettable experience.
“What matters the most are the memories of how the community and especially our neighbors supported these teams,” Wuestenberg’s father Todd said. “It fills our hearts with joy knowing little kids, like Ava, have excellent role models to look up to.”