“There’s a symphony inside you, there’s a thousand things for you to do.”
— James Taylor
Nicole Ballestero plays basketball with an orchestral range that makes coaches, teammates and spectators hum approvingly along.
But somewhere in the bleachers, her father, Carlos, is savoring every swish and shoe squeak of this specific full-court symphony with even greater toe-tapping delight.
“If he had a choice, I think my Dad would have had a family band,” Ballestero said. “I played piano growing up and my sister played guitar.”
Carlos, a member of a blues band, also plays guitar, but it was a different brand of string music that prompted him to form the Orange County Rhythm, a youth basketball club team on which both of his daughters created their own brand of hardwood harmony.
Ballestero still reads music, still plays piano, and still joins an occasional family jam session at the Orange home in which she grew up. But it’s the beat of a dribble that triggers her greatest artistic expression as an All-American guard at Vanguard University.
In her first season at Vanguard after two frustrating years at the University of San Diego, Ballestero averaged 21.4 points, 4.8 rebounds and 4.6 assists as the starting point guard on a team that went 25-4 and reached the NAIA quarterfinals. She was named first-team All-American and was a member of the all-tournament team at nationals.
This season, Ballestero’s numbers are virtually the same (23.5 points, 4.3 assists and 3.2 rebounds per contest), though her position has shifted to shooting guard. The lone returning starter from last season, she is the main reason why Vanguard opened the season ranked No. 1 in the NAIA and is off to a 6-0 start heading into Friday’s nonconference home game against Simpson University. The Lions are outscoring their opponents by just more than 31 points per game.
“I made the move because she is one of the best offensive players in the nation, so I wanted to get her more shots,” said Davis, who calls the 5-foot-8 team captain the front-runner for NAIA Player of the Year laurels.
Ballestero, whose sister Connie is the sophomore starting point guard at Idaho, has played point guard nearly all her life, but she embraced the change for the good of the team.
“This was a first-team All-American saying she would do whatever the team needs,” Davis said. “That’s the kind of unbelievable person she is. She’s very humble and a great team player. She’s the ultimate team player, our captain and everybody loves her.”
Davis’ praise of Ballestero’s play is equally effusive.
“She’s very well-rounded,” Davis said. “She has a great mid-range game, she can beat you off the dribble, and she’s great from three-point range.”
Ballestero shot 46.3% from the field, 42.3% from threedom and 77.9% from the foul line last season. Through five games this year, she was shooting 42.7% from the field, a blistering 54.3% on three-point attempts (19 for 35) and 84.4% from the foul line (28 for 33).
Her knack for creating contact helped her get to the line 154 times as a junior, nearly double the amount of the next-closest teammate (88).
It’s her ability to both recognize and take advantage of what opposing defenses give her that makes Ballestero such a consistently dangerous scorer. And her unselfishness would be the envy of any pass-first point guard.
“I think it helps having a point-guard mentality first,” said Ballestero, whom Davis calls “Nickers,” due somewhat to an unusual ritual that begins before tipoff and continues at halftime.
“She eats a Snickers candy bar every game, half before and half at halftime,” Davis said. “So, we always make sure she has a Snickers.”
Said Ballestero: “I had always heard it was better than an energy bar and I don’t do energy drinks.”
On her to-do list this season are Golden State Athletic Conference and NAIA championships, which would provide a fitting crescendo to a career that will likely continue professionally overseas.
“I think we can do it,” she said. “I think we have all the parts, which is cool.”
For Ballestero and the Lions, then, it may only be a matter of hitting the right notes.