By TOM BONE
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
Debbie Ball is leaving on her own terms.
The girls’ head basketball coach at Princeton Senior High School for an even 30 years is retiring as a teacher and coach effective with the end of the spring term.
She said Tuesday, “It takes a lot of energy to coach the game the right way, and I didn’t want to short-change it at all, especially in our (Mountain State Athletic) conference, the way we travel.”
“You know, I’ve never really had a break,” she said. Referring to the year-round grind of improving a team’s skills, scouting and planning, she said, “You don’t have a summer, you don’t have Christmas, you don’t have any of that. I just figured, well, it’s time to see what that’s like.”
She said her plans now call for “odds and ends, whatever you wake up feeling like doing. I’ll just see. I may be bored to death the first year, but I’m going to at least attempt it.”
In her 30 years running the Tigerettes, she compiled a 410-286 record, winning 68 percent of her games. The 1997-98 squad recorded a perfect regular season and ended 20-1 after a loss at the state tournament.
Princeton competed in the state tournament five times, including the just-completed season, and made the regionals 11 times.
She praised her students’ dedication to basketball at the Mercer County seat.
“You put your heart and soul in it, and you want them to do the same. And basically, the kids here do that,” she said. “I’ve been lucky to have kids that were willing to give up their time — and they have, and I guess that’s why we’ve done so well.”
“It’s hard, because I’ll miss working with the kids.”
Ball started teaching elementary physical education in Mercer County 32 years ago. She has taught at Princeton High for the past 27 years.
She played basketball as a student at Princeton, where her father Ralph Ball coached the boys’ basketball team to two state championships.
After graduating from Concord College (now University), she signed on for two years as an assistant coach for Ann Wells, who was one of her coaches as a player.
Debbie Ball wrote in her retirement announcement, “She will always be appreciated for allowing me to be her assistant and opening the door for the head coaching job. She inspired me to keep this program respected.”
“When I played here, there was respect here, and I just knew that we had to run the program like that,” she said.
The community responded.
Ball said, “We’ve always had pretty good support here. The past 10 years, I would say, we’ve gained a lot. Depending on what teams and the type of play that we had, I would hear people talk about how they enjoyed watching the girls as much as the boys.”
“That talk started throughout the town and more people came to watch and they realized, ‘Hey, they do a pretty good job out here.’ So, our fan base has always been pretty supportive.”
She has been an eyewitness to the evolution of girls basketball in West Virginia.
She said, “When I was a senior in high school, I think we were limited to 10 games (in the regular season) and then a county tournament.”
“And then the SSAC (Secondary School Activities Commission) took it over. It’s been on the upswing ever since then,” she said.
For the girls and boys basketball programs these days, at least at Princeton, she said, “It pretty much is even, as far as the way your administration treats you.”
“When I first started, there were a few schools that didn’t have the benefit that we had. They wouldn’t let their girls borrow the vans to go to games. But here at Princeton, we’ve always been fortunate to have kept it even.”
Like all high school coaches, she has worked with students of different shapes and sizes who showed up without polished skills, and turning that gym full of teenagers into a team.
“That’s actually the fun part,” Ball said. “It’s the fun part of coaching, is taking an athlete, and making her into the team concept of what you know you’re going to have to do to win ballgames.”
“I think if you try to skip around that and try to do it any other way, you don’t really get the growth and you don’t get that feeling of, ‘Hey, you’ve taken this team and they’re climbing that ladder and they go somewhere.’ ”
“It justifies you as a person, (as) a coach, to see that happen.”
She gave an example.
“It’s probably been 15, 20 years,” she said. “I had a kid that could not dribble the ball without walking. She was one of those who was notoriously in the gym, wanting to get better. Well, she came in as a sophomore, and she ended up being the starting point guard, her senior year.”
“You never forget kids like that.”
Her brother Skip Ball has also been her assistant coach for years. She noted that he implemented the fast break into Princeton’s game plan.
“When this was added, it allowed a smaller team to score more points and stop teams from pressing us,” Debbie Ball wrote. “I thank him for being my right hand.”
She has been involved in dozens of college-signing ceremonies for her students and is aware of those life-altering possibilities — though it’s up to the student to persevere.
She said, “The sport can take them and give them a four-year education, if they’re willing to put the work in. We’ve put a lot of kids in college. Now, whether they stay with the program or not — we did our part in getting them there.”
She said the process of sorting out her office in preparation for retirement is “kind of an odd feeling.” After moving four bags of trash out of her work area, she said, “I told the custodians, ‘I’m sorry.’ ”
She said she would never have thought as a Princeton grad that she would be ending a 32-year coaching career.
“No, I never thought I’d really last this long,” she said with a smile.
She said when she was a senior in high school, she once wrote, “ ‘I want to be a coach like Daddy,’ as a joke. Well, it ended up not being, really, a joke.”
She said about her father, “When I was a kid, I went to the gym with him, I went to summer league with him. We were always around the basketball.”
“He’s always been an inspiration. ... His time here ended way too soon, I’ve always said. But at least I’m going when I wanted to; he didn’t go when he wanted to.”
He was still present at hundreds of Princeton girls games over the years, ready to provide advice to his daughter.
“He always had input,” she said. “He got real brave at the end. He’d be sitting right behind me. I’d be, like, ‘Oh, no, there he is, right behind me.’ But I’ve always thought, if he’s won two state tournaments, I need to listen to him.”
“I have always been proud to be his daughter.”
“I’ve been blessed to be able to coach a sport I love,” she wrote in her retirement letter. “To work with some amazing athletes. To be around people that have made the job easier and enjoyable.”
“I would hope I have tried to make these young adults feel worthy ... that they all have a purpose. Once they feel self-worth and confidence, they have a way of achieving more goals.”
“Education isn’t always about textbooks and state tests. The young people today need to know you care about them.”
— Contact Tom Bone at