By Brian Paglia
Abby Balduff almost didn't have a choice in becoming Peoples Baptist Academy's girls basketball coach. The private Christian school searched and searched for a candidate, offering the position to several people within the administrative staff. Don't have enough time, they all said.
So the job came to the Buffalo, N.Y., native almost by default. No matter that she hadn't coached any sport, or that she hadn't been around basketball since high school, or that she'd just been hired as a secretary with the school right out of college.
Balduff's learning curve was steep and came suddenly, but she's helped steward Peoples Baptist nonetheless and maintain its success in the Georgia Christian Athletic Association. The Lady Knights are 12-3 overall and 10-0 in the GCAA, advancing them straight to the semifinals of the AA state tournament that begins today at Hahira Middle School just north of Valdosta.
"Our preacher just kind of told me I was going to do it," Balduff said. "They were asking a bunch of people and nobody was free to do it. I had never coached at all in any sport."
Indeed, this was uncharted territory for Balduff, but not just on the court.
She grew up in Buffalo, N.Y., the second largest city in New York located on the eastern shores of Lake Erie. Gradually she began to move south, first to Shawnee Baptist College in Louisville, Ky., to study music, then to Peoples Baptist.
Coaching high school basketball wasn't on the radar, though. Balduff had played basketball in high school, but suddenly she was pouring over basketball coaching websites to get a start on her sideline acumen, badgering the team parents who had coaching experience with questions about the finer points of the game.
"I couldn't even sleep for a month," Balduff said. "It was difficult at the beginning. I've learned a lot as well as taught them a few things that I know. I think we've all grown together. I think it was a good learning experience."
Her players certainly agree.
"It was a big change," Lady Knights senior guard Brittany Stallings said, "but they're awesome. They're so much fun. ... We adjusted learning some new stuff, doing something different, but we love them."
"It's different from our other coach," Lady Knights senior Kylene Dryka said, "but they're awesome."
Things got off to an auspicious start. Peoples Baptist won its opener 28-15 against Killian Hill. It finished second at the Torch Classic tournament in Alabama. Since then, the Lady Knights have won 10 of their 11 final regular season games. They won their final three games by an average of 28.6 points.
Balduff's transition was eased by the complexion of Peoples Baptist's roster.
Since GCAA schools allow students in seventh and eighth grade to participate in high school varsity sports, many of the Lady Knights have extensive experience playing together. Dryka, the team's point guard and a captain, has started for the Lady Knights since seventh grade. Stallings cracked the starting lineup as a freshman.
That's given Peoples Baptist a unique advantage over its opponents this season.
"Our team is so unified this year," Stallings said. "We read each other so well. I think we have an awesome chance of winning just because of how close we are this year as a team."
"We've been playing with each other since we were in seventh and eighth grade," Dryka said, "so we all know each other's strengths. We just know how to play with each other."
That helped Balduff get used to being a head coach.
"These girls are amazing," Balduff said. "They really are amazing at basketball. It was nice for my first year."