Newsome's Ally Ledenham gets life, softball career back on track after a horrific car crash

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Mon. March 22, 2010 | Joey Knight | Email

TP_319862_WALL_focus_4 LITHIA — The photos scream fatality.

In each one, the mangled black sports car resembles an empty soda can squashed by a thick hand. The passenger’s side is caved in and the sunroof shattered. The trunk is crumpled metal. The dashboard is gone.

“It’s not a vehicle,” says Chris Ledenham, provider of the photos. “It was absolutely crushed.”

Chris’ daughter, Newsome High softball standout Ally Ledenham, was extricated from this morbid wreckage, and a semblance of faith in humanity rekindled.

The accident occurred on a rainy afternoon in May 2009. It cost Ally a small portion of a kidney (among other injuries), the rest of her junior year at Newsome, her entire summer travel-ball season and about three weeks’ complete bed rest.

It didn’t cost her the scholarship she had been promised by Tallahassee Community College. The TCC coaches saw the same photos, but darned if they saw any negatives.

Ally signed in late January.

“We didn’t even think twice about it,” TCC assistant Jennifer McKibben said.
• • •

A robust girl with a broad smile and sandy blond hair, Ally, a first baseman and right-handed pitcher, can smash the daylights out of a softball.

Two springs ago, she collected 37 RBIs as a Newsome sophomore, earning Times’ first-team all-county honors. Last season, she hit nearly .300 with a pair of home runs and 18 more RBIs and struck out 55 batters in 41 innings.

Shortly after that 2009 campaign, she was headed to Plant City on State Road 39 for a practice with her travel-ball team, the South Florida Pride. Newsome teammate Brittany Olsen, who almost religiously rode with her to these practices, was out of town.

Because it was raining, Ally remembers telling herself to slow down, which she did, though she acknowledges her 2008 Mazda 3 still was traveling 5-10 miles over the 55 mph speed limit. About that time, an elevated railroad track sneaked up on her. When she hit it, the car rolled and hit a telephone pole.
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“I don’t remember it a lot,” said Ally, knocked out briefly by the impact. “I remember like waking up and trying to get my seatbelt off.”

According to Chris, an off-duty police officer happened upon the scene, dug some tools from the back of his car and cut Ally out before the ambulance arrived. That was the incident’s compassionate twist.

Here’s the creepy one: An employee at a nearby funeral home also drove by, caught one look at the vehicle and called home to say he likely would be summoned to work that night.

“That just gave me absolute goose bumps,” Chris said.

By the time the ambulance got Ally to Tampa General Hospital, she was conscious and talking, but had six broken ribs, several fractured vertebrae, a fractured pelvis, a lacerated spleen and liver, kidney damage and a concussion.

She initially was hospitalized five days, but had to return once when her lung collapsed. An honors student with a 4.1 weighted GPA, she missed the waning stretch of her junior year and the accompanying final exams, but administrators allowed her grades to stand where they were at the time of the accident and promoted her.

In terms of her softball career, fate wasn’t as compassionate.

“I missed my whole summer,” said Ally, the second-oldest of Chris and Rob Ledenham’s four girls.
And not just any summer. With the Pride, she planned to play roughly two high-profile tournaments a month (not counting showcase events), exposing herself to college recruiters who might be interested in a rangy kid who could pitch and pummel a rise ball. The idea, of course, was for such exposure to parlay into a scholarship offer.

“High school season is the same season as college season, so most coaches don’t have a chance to come out and watch you,” Ally said. “So it’s really all about what you do in travel ball.”

Yet the only traveling Ally did in the ensuing weeks came in short, excruciating, indoor increments. Before the lung eventually re-inflated itself, sitting up in bed was a debilitating task.

Chris estimates Ally wasn’t “really able to get around” until mid summer. Two months after the accident, when Ally mentioned to her parents she’d like to try and resume softball, they laughed. Ally didn’t.

“I thought (any scholarship chances) were like, ruined,” she said.

Benevolence swooped in from the Panhandle.

• • •

A couple of years back, Ally had put together a highlight video and sent it to several colleges, big and small. Around the end of her sophomore year, she took a trip to Tallahassee to visit older sister Alyssa, who was attending Florida State, and stopped by the TCC campus.

She met the Eagles coaches, who loved what they had seen on the video, not to mention Ally’s attitude, academic achievements and physical upside.

“We kind of said to ourselves, ‘If we get this kid we’d be really lucky,’ ” McKibben said.

According to TCC athletic director Rob Chaney, the Eagles softball program annually has 24 scholarships to give, with only 12 of those full rides.

Ask any collegiate coach in any sport and you’re likely to get variations of the same refrain: One or two recruiting mistakes can be perilous to a program. Shortly after Ally’s accident, McKibben and Eagles coach Patti Townsend saw the photos and knew a painful, proverbial road lay ahead of her. But they made sure that road still led to their doorstep.

“Even if she couldn’t play we still would’ve loved to have her,” McKibben said. “She’s a kid you want as part of your program no matter what capacity she could bring to your table.”

Ally resumed playing in October, working out with another travel team in Fishhawk coached by Tom Rectenwald. That first day, she couldn’t go for more than 30 minutes and experienced a sharp pain down her right side when she tried pitching. She needed two weeks off before she tried another practice.
The following month, she made her official visit to TCC and worked out with the team. McKibben recalls Ally being frustrated by her performance.

Two months later, Ally, who hadn’t played an organized high school game or high-profile travel-ball contest since the accident, signed an academic/athletic scholarship with TCC. Chris estimates the coaches’ leap of faith comes out to roughly $3,500 annually.

“They’re so nice,” Ally said.

The Eagles’ good-faith investment appears more promising each contest. Though she still requires ice packs and Advil after each game or practice, Ally is hitting .385 with four doubles. Last Monday, nearly 10 months to the day after being told she was fortunate to be alive, she smashed a line-drive homer in a 3-2 win at Plant City.

“I thought maybe there would be a little, ‘Coach, I’m hurting too much today’ or whatever. None of that,” Wolves coach Dawn Vanella said. “She’s definitely holding her own.”

Meantime, the Eagles hold her scholarship.

“It didn’t matter if she was not going to play, was going to play,” McKibben said, “she was going to be a part of our program.”

Joey Knight can be reached at jknight@sptimes.com

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