BY JOHN KOVACH
VINDICATOR SPORTS STAFF
YOUNGSTOWN -- Barb (Nick) Ballestrino, admitting she was a tomboy, began playing softball at the age of 13.
Now 40, and married with family, she still is playing and is considered the top player in the Mill Creek Women's Softball League.
Softball always has been, and will continue to be, a big part of her life, thanks in part to her parents and brothers, and to her interest in athletics.
"I probably have to credit my parents [Arthur and the late Esther], but I had two older brothers [Tony and Gus] who played Little League and so I used to play sports with them. I was a tomboy," said Ballestrino, who began her career in the then-pioneering Mill Creek Arco league.
"That was the first really organized softball league for girls that started around here," she pointed out, noting that the first team she played on was Bear's Club, and her first coach Bob "Zeke" Zielinski.
Next level: Then, when Ballestrino got too old for the Arco league at 15, "there was a group of us that held together and played in a Youngstown women's league at Idora Park and Rocky Ridge and on traveling teams on weekends.
"My father coached when we started the women's team when I was 16. He coached our team, Agora. [I also] have a younger brother [Robert] who is in Special Olympics, and [he] is a special inspiration, and I still [help] him now playing sports."
Later, Ballestrino played basketball and competed in track at Ursuline High -- "They didn't have a softball team," she noted -- and then played four years of fast-pitch softball for Youngstown State before switching to slow pitch.
Nears potential: Now Ballestrino, who is an appraiser for Mahoning County, may be close to actualizing her true potential in the slow-pitch game.
"Even in slow pitch, I picked it up real easy," said Ballestrino, who plays with the Five Star Graphic/Mixx team in the Mill Creek loop on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and with the elite Conneaut Lakerettes traveling team on the weekends.
After being named the Mill Creek league's Most Valuable Player last season, Ballestrino again is off to an outstanding start. The right-center fielder has better than a .700 batting average to lead the league.
She led the Five Star Graphic/Mixx team to the league title the last two seasons, and to a 10-1 record this year entering last week's play.
Starks challenge: But the squad was lagging in second place behind the undefeated and nationally-acclaimed Starks Holiday Bar team, which switched to the Mill Creek league this season from the Warren league that was discontinued for lack of funding.
Starks Holiday Bar won the national Class D championship last year, and was the state Class D champion the last two seasons.
Ballestrino also helped the Conneaut Lakerettes win the 35-and over national open division championship the past two years.
Family support: Over the years, family members have been her biggest fans, the clan having expanded to include husband David and stepson David Jr.
But she lost her most devoted follower, her mother; while her father, hampered by illness, comes out only occasionally now.
"A year ago, [her mother] died. She used to come to all the games. She used to bring my younger brother," said Ballestrino, noting that her mother helped to motivate her to play sports.
"She was an athlete in her hey-day at South High and she encouraged me more than anyone," said Ballestrino.
She said the Mill Creek league is "more family- and friends-oriented," and that "my family can still come and watch me play.
"On the weekends [with the elite Conneaut Lakerettes], that's the competitive part. The people involved with it are from all over the country."
Swing from dad: Ballestrino credits her father for her swing. But her role at the plate has changed.
"Before I was a power hitter. Now I'm a leadoff batter. I have a knack for hitting a line drive just to get on base. My dad taught me that part of it, the hitting," she explained.
There are four other former YSU players on the Five Star Graphic/Mixx team -- Danielle Carson, Elaine Jacobs, Marla Penza and Trina Rich. Also on the squad is D'Nelle Seiple of Austintown Fitch, who played at Miami of Ohio.
Background: Ballestrino played all four years at YSU from 1980-83 under coaches Bill Wolf and Rick Bevly, and is a member of the YSU Athletic Hall of Fame.
While at Ursuline, she played four seasons of basketball under coaches Gary Grimm, Joe Ceremuga and Joe Ash; while her track coaches were Tony Costarella, George Stroia and Jim Boyle.
Ballestrino also was selected to the Ursuline Hall of Fame for both sports.