EFFINGHAM — The rain had just started to fall in a Week 3 game against Mount Zion.
The Braves called a run play and Effingham senior safety Kendall Ballman broke towards the line of scrimmage like he was “shot out of a cannon.”
Ballman forced a fumble, realized no Braves player was on top of him and got back up with a straight path towards recovering the ball. Instead, a Mount Zion player picked up the ball to save the possession; but in typical Ballman fashion, he tackled that Mount Zion player, too.
“I thought, ‘While I’m here I might as well tackle him,’” Ballman recalled. “It was pretty awesome be able to make that play.”
It’s just who Ballman is on an Effingham team that has won nine consecutive games after an 0-2 start to advance to the Class 4A quarterfinals at 2 p.m. on Saturday at home against Kankakee Bishop McNamara.
Effingham coach Brett Hefner took over as head coach when Ballman was a freshman. It didn’t take for Hefner long to realize that Ballman doesn’t do much on the field with a particular amount of patience. If there’s a play to be made, Ballman, a 5-foot-8, 145-pound ball of energy, makes it.
“If I see something, I’m going to try to take that,” Ballman said. “Sometimes it doesn’t always go the best.”
For as long as he can remember, Ballman has always wanted to be at the point of attack on any football play. Occasionally, though, he’ll field a punt that he shouldn’t or he’s too aggressive in an instance that doesn’t always benefit the Hearts. But that same aggressiveness leads to plays like the double tackle and forced fumble he had against Mount Zion.
“You can’t take that aggressiveness and instincts out of it because he's going to make a lot more plays than he messes up," Hefner said. "He puts them behind him quickly. It will eat at him. He’ll go make extra plays to make up for it."
Ballman has been around the block. He’s a three-year starter who plays safety and running back and hardly leaves the field for the Hearts (9-2). He’s the team’s leading rusher with 1,152 yards, and has 17 rushing touchdowns and has three receiving touchdowns. Defensively, he’s the team’s leading tackler with 64 tackles, has four tackles for loss, two interceptions and a blocked punt.
“The thing that I love about him is he will compete and he will fight you like crazy,” Hefner said. “The height and weight and all that — you can throw it out the window because he has all kinds of heart and intensity in the way he competes. He did that as a freshman.”
Ballman and the Hearts heard the rumblings that they weren’t supposed to have this kind of season after losing a powerful senior class that included Herald & Review First Team All-Area running back Terrence Hill.
Through two weeks, it looked like the Hearts had slipped. Instead, Effingham developed its offensive line to spark a running game, led by Ballman, to complement quarterback Landon Wolfe, who is the program’s all-time and single-season leader in touchdown passes.
“We kind of went in with a chip on our shoulder,” Ballman said. “Those first two games were probably the hardest games we’d play all year competition-wise. We kind of knew that we were better than what people thought we were before the two games and then after. After that we came in with a will to win and got it done."
Defensively, the Hearts had to get acclimated to nine new starters. After allowing 64 points to Taylorville in a Week 2 loss, the Hearts clamped down and have allowed more than 20 points four times in the last nine games.
Ballman, of course, is right at the heart of the turnaround.
“Defensively, we said we need to get everybody playing as fast as he was,” Hefner said. “The problem was we had nine new starters. He’s probably one of the smartest football players I’ve coached, one of the toughest football players I’ve ever coached and pound for pound one of the best football players I've ever coached.”
The defense is firing on all cylinders ahead of Saturday's game. Effingham has allowed just 20 points in the postseason and Ballman has been been the catalyst. He has 20 total tackles in two postseason games with three tackles for a loss and an interception.
“I think we’re starting to click," Ballman said. "The chemistry is starting to get a lot better. In the beginning of the year there were a lot of guys and we felt like we weren’t clicking as a team. We were bantering with each other, but we settled that and we stated clicking."