By Thomas Albano
Senior back Tara Ballay made her way to the center of Ben Cohen Field on Oct. 24, the day of her final regular season home game. While her parents accompanied her, there were no teammates by her side. The psychology major from Delran, New Jersey, is the only member of the class of 2016 to be on the women’s soccer team.
“The part that stinks is that [after helping to build team chemistry] I’m going to be the only one leaving next year,” Ballay said.
Ballay says that she’s been playing soccer since she learned to walk.
“My older brothers played, so I wanted to try and keep up with them,” she said. “I switched to club around 7, and once I hit sophomore year of high school, I started looking at colleges.”
At Delran High School, she started all four years as a defensive midfielder, earning All-South Jersey and All-League honors in the process. It was around her sophomore season when Head Coach Drayson Hounsome discovered Ballay and tried to recruit her.
“She was small so we had to watch her a lot to get a sense of how good she was,” Hounsome said. “We had a list of seven players for one position — fullback — and eventually narrowed Tara down to our priority recruit after watching her play in the snow in December 2010. She committed to Rider two weeks later.”
Ballay’s rookie campaign was nothing short of praiseworthy, earning the MAAC Rookie of the Year award in the process. She had 11 points that season for an average of 0.69 points per game, good enough for eighth in the MAAC. She also had four goals and three assists that same season.
“It was a cool honor to get,” Ballay said. “It was kind of a big hats-off to my teammates for helping me and pushing me to get there.”
Ballay did not come to Rider alone, as there were two other freshmen with her, but they left prior to the 2013-14 season. At the same time, Ballay was ready to get back on the pitch in hopes of another successful year, but a major obstacle came just a few games into the season.
“I was clearing a header out on defense and as I came down I got bumped off of a straight pass down and I just landed funny and my knee popped,” Ballay said. “I got up, tried to run around a little bit, but it just felt weird. So, I got out of the game, got checked out and it ended up being a torn MCL.”
The training staff thought Ballay’s season was just about over, but Ballay managed to recover, rehabbing as much as she could, before returning after a month.
“The trainers were able to help me rehab enough to get back quickly,” she said. “The team, once I started to get to practice again, helped me get a big push to get back in shape then try to get my touch back as much as I could before I started playing in the games again.”
While she played in just nine games in 2013, Ballay looked forward to making up for lost time in the next season. She finished her junior campaign with 11 goals and 24 points, leading the MAAC in both categories with all coming from Aug. 25-Oct. 11, 2014.
She had two points and a goal during the matchup on Oct. 11, against Quinnipiac, when injury struck again. During a free kick, the goalkeeper took out Ballay, giving her two breaks in her left leg, the same that had the MCL tear. According to Hounsome, Ballay has had to put up with these injuries because of her “fearless approach to the game.”
“She has had many injuries during her time at Rider, an unfortunate consequence of what has made her one of the best players in Rider history,” he said.
Yet, once again, Ballay got back onto the field faster than expected, returning just in time for the Broncs’ postseason run that saw them win the 2014 MAAC Championship.
“My team put up with me hobbling around the field when I came back for playoffs,” she said.
Ballay earned many honors for the 2014 season, from being the MAAC Player of the Year, to being recognized as All-ECAC Second Team and being named a CoSIDA Capital One Academic All-American. She entered her senior season ranked sixth in career goals and points at Rider, with 17 and 39 respectively, and was also named the MAAC Preseason Player of the Year.
But for Ballay, it’s not about the individual accomplishments; it’s about the team and teaching the younger players.
“We had new freshmen coming in that we wanted to get on the field and get that chemistry going,” she said. “I think that’s a good thing about our team — we’re comfortable throwing freshmen into a game; our first game of the year we had freshmen start. I think that’s something that has really helped us, they learned very quickly.”
Freshman back Meghan McCabe was one of the younger players who Ballay taught extensively, helping McCabe at the same position she played in her years as a Bronc.
“She took all of us freshman under her wing and made us feel as comfortable as possible,” McCabe said. “We have a young team and she definitely showed leadership by inspiring all of us to have the same determination as she does.”
Hounsome says he will miss having daily chats with Ballay after having watched her turn into a natural team leader on and off the field.
“Tara is a coach’s dream student-athlete, giving 100 percent in everything she does on and off the field,” he said, “[She is] dedicated and committed, conscientious and obsessive in her desire to be the best student-athlete she can be and make the soccer program the most successful it can be.”