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Tonya Tallbacka

She stood tall

Staff Writer

Tonya Eippert has seen this drill before.

"My dad has already bought both of the kids a ball," she said. "Madelyn dribbles the ball pretty good."

Getting the ball in the hands of 4-year-old Madelyn and her 1-year-old brother, Jackson, as soon as possible is the same regimen Dave Tallbacka put Tonya and older brother Tim through when they were the same age at their home in Ashtabula's Harbor district.

It seems like a pretty good plan, too, considering what it led to for both of the Tallbacka siblings. That early training with a ball and a hoop led Tim Tallbacka to productive careers at Harbor for Andrew Isco and at Hiram College for retiring Geneva
boys coach Brad Ellis. It also led him into the coaching realm, first with the Mariners, then as the first boys basketball coach at Lakeside and now to Brookfield.

Tonya Tallbacka also benefited from those days spent playing on the court in their driveway. It helped her become one of the few Ashtabula County players that can say they scored more than 1,000 points (1,249) and grabbed more than 1,000 rebounds (1,168) during their career, in this case from 1998-91 for Mike Hassett's Harbor teams.

Basketball opened the door for Dave and Tina Tallbacka's daughter to travel extensively for the first time. It paved the way to a brief career at Division I Morehead State University in Kentucky before legs that just refused to resist injury curtailed her participation in that sport and brought her back to Hiram, where she finished her undergraduate degree and got back into competitive swimming.

It helped her to get pointed toward a legal degree from Cleveland State
University's John Marshall College of Law. The discipline learned in
basketball was carried forth into a productive career in the Cleveland law
firm of Thompson, Hine and Flory and in-house legal work with British
Petroleum-Amoco. Now, she finds those disciplines have applications in her
life as a stay-at-home mother who still helps keep an eye on her husband
Tim's ever-expanding MC Sign business, which is scattered throughout
northeastern Ohio.
Those lessons learned three decades ago now have led to an additional distinction < Ashtabula County Basketball Foundation Hall of Fame member. At just 33, she will be the
second-youngest person to be inducted into that organization at the ACBF's
annual banquet April 2 at 6 p.m. at the Conneaut Human Resources Center. She
trails only Jefferson's Anita Jurcenko Moore, against whom Eippert played
several times during their high school careers.
It's all rather amazing to Eippert.
"I was shocked and very honored when I was told," she said. "It's very
surprising to be chosen and really quite wonderful.
"It's nice to be remembered. It makes it even more special to be inducted at
this time in my life."
When she watches her preschooler Madelyn, who is also into swimming,
gymnastics, cheerleading and dance, working with the basketball outside
their home bordering the Little Mountain Golf Course in Concord Township,
the memories come flooding back.
"I was probably about 2 when my dad got the ball and turned me loose on
Tim," Eippert said. "I remember always wanting to dribble the ball."
Joining the Ashtabula YMCA swimming team when she was 6 was her first
organized athletic pursuit, but basketball was always there on the fringes.
"I probably really got started with basketball in fifth or sixth grade at
Thomas Jefferson Elementary," Eippert said. "Will Petric had a program after
school. I really enjoyed that.
"I think it was a combination of the influence of my dad and my brother. My
dad always had me out shooting foul shots and doing all kinds of jumping
drills. I loved that."
Swimming was forsaken for basketball at Columbus Junior High.
"Basketball took over from swimming in seventh or eighth grade," Eippert
said. "Byron Sargent was my junior high coach. He was great."
Volleyball entered the picture when she got to Harbor, playing for Janna
Oppenheimer and John Roskovics. But basketball was firmly in command by that
time under the direction of Hassett, now the offensive coordinator for the
Lakeside football team and an up-and-coming basketball official.
"My freshman year was probably when I first began to realize I could do
something with basketball," he said. "I had great teammates like Julie
Pavolino, Diane Acierno and LaToya Scruggs. I really enjoyed the camaraderie
and learning about teamwork.
"I used to love the Saturday-morning practices (Hassett) used to have. It
may seem kind of demanding, but we always did something fun afterward."
Hassett eagerly received Eippert into his program.
"Tonya is by far the best basketball player I ever coached," he said. "I was
very fortunate she came along when I was still a young coach (in his fourth
year at age 26).
"Tonya was not a flashy player. She didn't have outstanding speed or leaping
ability, but she was so fundamentally sound. She was a 6-footer, but she
could play inside and out."
Although she doesn't remember much of her high school career, one occasion
early in it stands out that has continued to resonate.
"I remember we beat Jefferson either my freshman or sophomore year when they
had Ronda Carter," she said.
Rod Holmes, still the girls coach at Jefferson, remembers those
confrontations with Eippert's Mariners.
"I'm glad she's not playing anymore," he said. "Probably the biggest thing I
remember about her was the time Harbor was playing at Jefferson. We thought
we had the game under control when all of a sudden, she stepped out and
starting hitting a bunch of threes. We won the game, but she sure gave us a
scare. Tonya always seemed to find a way to help keep Harbor close."
Eippert engaged in some wars with Bob Callahan's Edgewood teams. Though
retired, he still remembers the battle between his Warriors and her
"She was a real strong inside player," he said. "She played with a group of
girls who played together their whole high school career.
"Tonya was very active around the basket. She could shoot effectively out to
15 feet from the high, medium or low post. We had Stephanie Ward and Jenny
Hall playing against her. She had a real nice touch and rebounded well, too.
She had good hands and could catch the ball well."
Throughout her career, Eippert had to play in pain. She was constantly
plagued with shin splints, but Hassett and opponents came to admire how she
played through pain uncomplainingly.
"She played hurt all the time," Hassett said. "I don't know how she did it
most of the time. She wore braces on her legs all day long by the time she
was a senior.
" I think they drove her nuts, but she put up with it because she wanted to
play so much. I put in the top three athletes I've ever coached, male or
female, in terms of toughness."
Holmes admired her grit, too.
"It always seemed like she played with pain, but you never saw any quit in
Tonya," he said. "She was a great kid. I knew she always came to play and
she was always a class act on the floor. She played hard, but there were no
cheap shots. She was a class player."
Callahan respected her, too.
"She got a lot out of her ability considering her bad wheels," he said.
Her love for the game and her work ethic were exceptional.
"I remember playing at Madison and we got beat," Hassett said. "When I got
on the bus, she was crying. I asked her if she gave it everything she had,
and she said Oyes.' I told her OThen that's all you can do.' I remember that
more than any winning shot she hit.'"
Hassett used her as example for the rest of his days as the girls coach at
Harbor and when he continued as the coach at Lakeside.
"I always used to use Tonya as an example," he said. "I used to film
practices back then so I could show films of how she played the game. I
tried to have the girls emulate her all the time. And she was the first
Division I-A scholarship player I ever had.
"I'm very proud of what Tonya has accomplished. She's one of the main
reasons I'ev stayed in coaching. What she's done with her life makes me so
Word of her exploits got out quickly, especially after she set a school
scoring record. By her junior year, she was on the recruiting trail with her
"It was all a little overwhelming," Eippert said. "I remember flying out to
Colorado for one visit.
"But I always dreamed of playing Division I ball. When we went to Morehead
and I saw the campus, I fell in love with it. It was only seven hours away
from home, so that was good, too."
Things started out well enough, but problems with shin splints she had
encountered even in high school became progressively worse.
"They had even taken bone out of my hip before my freshman year, which did
help," Eippert said. "But I got kicked in the shin in a pickup game with
some guys after the season and it snapped my shin. I was told I shouldn't
play basketball after that."
She turned back to swimming, finishing her sophomore year at Morehead on
their team. She transferred to Hiram before her junior year and spent her
last two seasons on the swimming team there.
"That turned out pretty good," Eippert said. "I just missed making the
Division III nationals my senior year by one-100th of a second."
Always an excellent student, she received the Helen Petrosky Award as
Hiram's top female scholar-athlete. Armed with a degree in management, she
went to Cleveland State and earned her juris doctorate, graduating in 1998.
She was in private practice for two years and with BP-Amoco for another. All
the discipline she had learned in basketball helped guide her through the
demands of the legal profession, as well as marriage. She and Tim have been
married for 10 years.
Those disciplines still have applications on the homefront with two little
"I always thought I'd be a stay-at-home mom," Eippert said. "It's great. It
definitely keeps me busy."
She's contemplating taking on even more.
"I try to stay up-to-date with legal matters," she said. "I also usually
look over the contracts that Tim brings home from his business. I'm still
looking at doing some volunteer work."
There's a pretty good chance she'll eventually be working with her daughter
and son in their varied activities.
"Basketball taught me how to work together with people to achieve a goal,"
Eippert said. "It taught me a lot in college just scheduling my studies and
playing a sport.
"Now, I'm dealing with the schedules of three or four people. The kids are
involved in a lot of activities, and I want it that way."
Basketball has undoubtedly meant a lot to Eippert and will continue to do
"I still may not totally realize the impact basketball has had on my life,
but I'm thankful for what it has given me," she said.


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