The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

March 6, 2013

ACBF HOF Series — Tiff was tough

Tiffany Leonard of Geneva gave no quarter — and asked for none — while starring in 3 sports for 4 years

By CHRIS LARICK
For the Star Beacon

— Despite leading Ashtabula, Lake and Geauga counties in scoring during the 1992-1993 basketball season with 560 points (23.4 per game), Tiffany Leonard drew no interest from Division I colleges for basketball.

Why not? She was just 5-foot-4.

But that was all right with Leonard, who will be inducted into the Ashtabula County Basketball Foundation Hall of Fame on April 7. She had plenty of other offers, 42 in fact, to play her favorite sport, softball.

In fact, Leonard was good in just about any sport she played, from the time, her father, Tim, introduced her to tee-ball when she was 5. She also played basketball and was a gymnast in her early years. By the time she reached high school, Leonard was a star athlete year-round, playing volleyball in the fall, basketball in the winter and softball in the spring.

In basketball, she was one of just a handful of girls to play in the Geneva Midget League, along with Shaun Novak and Katie Hobson (now Katie Carter).

Her final year at that level, she made the all-star team, the only girl to win that honor.

“My seventh-grade year, I played whatever I could,” Leonard said. “I’d play seventh-grade basketball (for Geneva) with the girls, then cheerlead for the boys.”

She and Novak started with the junior-varsity team under Bill Crawford to start their freshman season, but were moved up to the varsity team, coached by Jeff Pizon.

By the time she was a sophomore, Leonard was good enough to earn special-mention honors on the Star-Beacon All-Ashtabula County team.

She moved up to that squad’s second team as a junior, scoring 13.2 points a game, sixth in scoring in the county. She finished her senior year as the best scorer in the area with 23.1 points a game. She was eighth overall in free-throw shooting (62.7 percent) and fourth in 3-pointers while averaging six rebounds and four steals per contest. Not surprisingly, she was selected as the Star Beacon Ashtabula Player of the Year for 1992-1993.

Though she could shoot the long ball, she found other ways to score.

“I’d go in there and try to go down to the other end of the court and make a layup or get fouled,” she said. “I did everything; I played a very physical game of basketball. But not many Division I schools looked at me. I was too short. I loved softball, anyway.”

Leonard also was a standout volleyball player, with Stan Bielech as coach, at Geneva. She played middle back.

“I dug out the ball and was a good server,” she said. “We only played the best-of-three games. I set the record for scoring points then.”

Still, softball was her best sport. Playing with Bob Herpy as her coach, she started in left field as a freshman. But she became the ace pitcher for the Eagles as a sophomore. Her senior year, 1993, she led Geneva to the Northeastern Conference championship.

“I was 24-1 my senior year,” she said. “I was the leadoff hitter. When I played in the traveling league, I played third base. That was my best spot. I pitched because they needed someone to do that. My sister, Tara, took over as the pitcher when I graduated.”

Leonard posted a .360 batting average for her high school career, hitting .389 as a senior and had a .957 fielding percentage. Toward the end of her senior year she was chosen as the winner of the Paul Novak Award as the best senior athlete at Geneva, having been first-team All-Northeastern Conference and all-county in volleyball, basketball and softball.

If Division I colleges snubbed her in basketball, they beat a path to her door in softball. She had scholarship offers from Youngstown State, Akron, Toledo and Morehead State in Kentucky, along with many Division II schools. She eventually settled on Morehead State.

There, she made a quick impression. In her second or third game, the coach put her in to pinch-hit and she cleared the bases.

“I had never sat on the bench before,” she said. “It was a humbling thing. (The pinch-hit appearance) was a put-up-or-shut-up thing. I got a chance and ran with it.”

Playing softball in college isn’t a one-season sport. She wound up playing 30 games in the fall and 65 more in the spring, against tough competition like Ohio State, Tennessee Tech and many other big schools.

“It was very challenging and very rewarding,” Leonard said.

Though the softball schedule kept her busy, she thrived, improving her grades. Like many college athletes, Leonard was able to take advantage of the study tables.

“I did better in college than in high school, grade-wise,” she said. “It was hard at first, but I didn’t want to let anyone down. My area, nursing, made me more focused.”

After one year at Morehead State, she transferred to Youngstown State.

“It was a six-hour drive down there (to Morehead State),” she said. “My grandfather had a heart attack and passed away. I was much happier close to home. If I wanted to, I could come home at any time. It was a better experience.”

At Morehead, she had gotten off to a great start, hitting .410 in her first 10 games. That fell off a bit, but she still wound up hitting .306 as a freshman, batting sixth.

Youngstown State switched her to batting lead-off.

“My on-base percentage was very good,” she said. “I didn’t strike out a lot and usually got on base.”

She had decided on a career in medicine. She had been a candy-striper in hospitals and decided on nursing. When she graduated from Youngstown State, she got an internship in Texas, working in open-heart surgery.

After five years, she moved back to Ohio. Leonard had married Donny Lindberg, a 1990 Geneva graduate whom she met at 18. The couple went to college together and married in 1998. They had twins (Madison and Tyler) and another son, Darren.

When those five years were over, Leonard moved back to Ohio in 2002. She took a job at the Geauga Regional Hospital and spent two years there, working three days a week and substitute teaching in Geneva schools.

Leonard and Lindberg divorced in 2011.

“It just didn’t work out,” she said.

In 2005, Riverside High School was looking for nurses and hired Leonard. She has spent the last eight years there, most recently as the district nurse, serving nine schools and 6,400 students.

“There’s a lot more paperwork, but it’s nice to have the summers off,” she said. “It’s a better life for my kids.”

Nowadays, Leonard coaches her children in soccer, basketball, baseball, softball and football.

“I never played soccer, but they needed a coach,” she said. “This is my seventh year. I had to learn that.”

These days she is too busy coaching to play sports herself, though she has played in charity basketball and football games at Riverside.

Looking back, she remains grateful to the people who were responsible for her success in sports.

“I just want to say that I wouldn’t have had any of it without my parents,” she said. “We lived in Rock Creek, a 15- or 20-minute drive. My dad coached me. He got up at 4:30 and he and I would go to the Y. I realize now that it’s a lot of work and preparation, getting the equipment you need. I didn’t realize how much they sacrificed for us.”

Larick, a retired Star Beacon sports writer, is a freelance writer from Geneva.