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Through the ups and the downs, Amy Bullimore was built for this

Senior Amy Bullimore was recently tabbed as an Honorable Mention Preseason All-American by d3hoops.com. She led the Polar Bears in scoring and rebounding last season. (Northern Review photo/ Grant Pepper)

On the day the world ended, Amy Bullimore sat in the locker room a little longer than usual to soak it all in. She cried and reflected as her coach tried to put the team’s season in perspective.

It had been one year and six days since the fifth-ranked Ohio Northern women’s basketball team had lost a game. They finished the 2016-17 season 30-1, losing to 10th-ranked Christopher Newport in an intense Elite Eight matchup at King Horn Sports Center last March.

From March: Too little, too late: Northern’s historic run ends in Elite Eight

There was a surrealness to it all. It was almost as if the team had forgotten what it felt like to lose.

“It was almost like the end of the world,” Bullimore, who was a junior during last year’s run, said. “I probably felt out of control. We were undefeated at the time and there was a lot of emotion.”

When Bullimore finally left the locker room to see friends and family in the gym, she was greeted by her high school coach, Matt Tolliver.

Tolliver, standing at 6-feet tall and wearing a white, long sleeve ONU quarter-zip jacket that Bullimore had given him as a gift, didn’t say anything at first. He just gave her a hug. It was an embrace of understanding, of knowing what each other meant but not needing to say it. The two had made it through worse together, after all, dating back to when he first started at Little Miami High School and Bullimore was a sophomore.

As much as that loss last March felt like the end of the world, Bullimore had been through worse.

One loss? Try 19 straight.

***

Entering her sophomore year, Bullimore was the only returning player on the Little Miami High School girls basketball team.

Bullimore, who averaged one point per game during her freshman season, said that she considered transferring schools because the coach had left. During her freshman year, there were just 11 players in the program and eight of them were seniors who graduated the following spring.

Numbers were low because the year before Bullimore got to high school, a large contingent of the varsity players quit the team to play in a church league because they were upset that another coach didn’t get the job.

This is where Tolliver comes in. Formerly a coach at various levels in Indiana for 14 years, then a high school coach in Michigan for two years, Tolliver was surprised when the Little Miami athletic director called him just 10 minutes after he sent in his application.

“When I first applied for the job, I didn’t understand what was going on,” Tolliver says with a laugh, referring to the state of the program.

The school had also repeatedly failed levees during Bullimore’s time in school -- she said that they failed nine times in a row -- and athletes also had to pay $600 to play a sport.

Tolliver said bluntly that he “was lucky for the fact that it was such a mess.”

“To be honest, because I was new to the area, I would’ve never gotten that job if it would’ve been a good job,” Tolliver said. “I didn’t know anybody and I hadn’t coached in Ohio before and I’m not a teacher, so I would never have gotten the job to begin with. But I like a challenge.”

When Tolliver held his first meeting for interested players, only three girls showed up: Bullimore and two freshmen.

“We were very close to not having a high school team during my first year,” Tolliver said.

But Bullimore took it upon herself to recruit her classmates to play. Most of them had never played basketball before, or hadn’t played in four or five years. But the program needed numbers, and Bullimore wasn’t going to let the program die.

“She saved our program,” Tolliver said. “She went out and just got kids to play. It didn’t matter if they played basketball ever, or hadn’t played in four or five years, we needed bodies and she went out and recruited kids in our school to play basketball. If she hadn’t done that, I would never have had enough kids for a team.”

By the time fall open gyms started, Bullimore had gathered enough kids to play -- at least seven or eight at the beginning.

“Every open gym leading up to the season, there would be new kids that she had brought and asked,” Tolliver recalls. “And I’d say, ‘How’d you get here?’ And they’d say, ‘Amy brought us. Amy wants to make sure we have a team.’”

But despite Bullimore’s success in getting her peers interested in basketball -- mainly luring them with the idea that they would get to play varsity basketball as freshmen or sophomores -- there was still one issue: aside from Bullimore, this team was bad.

One fall day, Tolliver had one of his coaching friends from Indiana, who would eventually help coach the team, come watch an open gym.

“I remember he was like, ‘How’s the team look?’ And I’m like, ‘Well you’ve got to see it for yourself.’ I was like, ‘I hope it won’t be too bad, and hopefully we can get some other kids,” Tolliver said. “And I remember that first open gym, he was there, and I looked over to him and said, ‘We might be the worst team in the history of high school basketball.’”

Behind a raw, athletic-but-underdeveloped sophomore Bullimore, the Little Miami Panthers won just two games that season. They started the season 2-0, believe it or not, but then proceeded to lose the last 19.

“I remember telling my wife several times, ‘Boy, this is a tough job,’” Tolliver said. “We were close a lot, but teams figured out pretty quick that I’ve got this big girl, Amy, and I didn’t have a whole lot else at the time. I had a lot of younger kids that were going to be good players, but they were having to play varsity and they weren’t quite ready to play varsity.”

When the losses started to pile up, Tolliver said that he received anonymous emails from parents asking why he was so tough on the kids. They told him that he didn’t know what he was doing, and he heard that they started a petition to get rid of him.

But just as Bullimore, who averaged 12 points per game her sophomore year and then joined the Cincinnati Angels -- one of Cincinnati’s premier AAU programs -- stuck with it, so did Tolliver.

The next season, the program grew. They also started winning, having secured a winning season with six games left until the state tournament and claiming second place in their conference.

And under the tutelage of Tolliver and with the experience she gained over the summer by playing against some of the country’s best competition in AAU, the 6-foot Bullimore began to receive looks from Division I schools -- at least five or six, she says.

And then, one night, in a game against Edgewood High School, everything changed.

***

As the team’s center, Bullimore wasn’t typically allowed to take the ball up the floor. Tolliver usually preferred that she outlet it to a guard instead.

“For whatever reason, she just decided she was going to bring the ball up the court. And she did a fine job; she got the ball up the court and got almost to the block and was met, so she stopped,” Tolliver said.

But when Bullimore stopped, her left leg gave out. Tolliver said that it “almost looked like it slid out, although she didn’t slide.”

“She just lets out this roar of pain. And you know, Amy’s a tough kid, and she’s on the floor screaming and crying,” Tolliver recalls. “So, as I’m walking over, you knew it was bad.”

Bullimore had torn her ACL in her left knee. She would miss the remainder of her junior season and the entire summer of AAU ball. And in the recruiting world, the summer between a girl’s junior and senior season is key for high-level collegiate exposure. The big schools will decide whether or not to go after a recruit based on what they see in June and July.

Because she was unable to play that summer, all of Bullimore’s Division I looks fell off the table.

“That really bothered me a lot,” Bullimore said. “It kind of felt like they were determining my level of comeback before I was even off crutches, so that really bothered me. I just wanted to get better and come back and show them what they were missing.”

By the time her knee had recovered and her senior season had started, Bullimore said that she was “still babying it.” Several Division II schools and a few Division III’s were still interested in Bullimore, and D-II Ohio Dominican offered her a scholarship -- but only gave her until Dec. 20 to decide if she wanted to sign -- so, because of her own insecurity with her knee, she backed out.

“I decided that I wasn’t ready to commit because I didn’t know if I was going to be good enough,” Bullimore, who looked dominant in a recent preseason scrimmage against ODU, said. “I still had a lot of doubt and lacked self-confidence in my knee at that point.”

Shortly after her senior season ended, Bullimore committed to Division II Urbana University. But when a coaching change occurred after her signing, Bullimore backed out.

It was late June after she had graduated from high school, just two months until the start of the next academic year, and Bullimore had yet to commit to a school.

“There was a lot of stress. But it wasn’t that I didn’t have any options, because I was talking to a lot of other schools at the same time,” Bullimore said.

One school that had followed Bullimore from the beginning, however -- who talked to her alongside the Division I’s before she tore her ACL and continued to express their interest after she recovered -- was Ohio Northern.

By the time she knew she was ready to make a decision, Bullimore said that it was an easy one.

“Ohio Northern stuck through it,” Bullimore said. “And telling Coach Durand that I wasn’t going to play for her originally when I committed [to Urbana] was harder than telling the Urbana coach that I was going to play, so I kind of felt an emotional tie to Ohio Northern anyway.”

And just like that, in late June of 2014, Durand and the Polar Bears had landed their next All-American.

***

When Ohio Northern got Bullimore, however, they also got her best friend (and consequentially, their new biggest fan).

During her junior year, the same year that she tore her ACL, Bullimore met Stephanie Goodwin, a student at the high school who had cerebral palsy. Goodwin worked as an office aid for her special needs class during her study hall.

Bullimore, who was involved with the school’s special needs program, met her and suggested to Tolliver and the athletic director that she become a student manager for the basketball team. They were all for it.

“We brought her in, I introduced her to the team, and the team immediately fell in love with her,” Tolliver said. “And I think that Amy and her just clicked.”

Bullimore and Goodwin would sit together on the bus, she would drive her home from practice, take her to the movies and would sometimes wheel her around in the wheelchair when she was tired, even if she didn’t need it.

“Stephanie had immediately clung on to Amy like, ‘This is my best friend.’ And Amy treated her like a best friend,” Tolliver said.

When Bullimore went off to college, the two still stayed connected. The senior says that they still text and call every day, and that Stephanie watches all of Amy’s games online. She even recently made her own custom ONU socks.

And with Stephanie’s admiration of Bullimore came her increased love for the game of basketball. Goodwin stayed with the Little Miami program, and last year -- when she was a senior -- Tolliver decided to make her an official member of the roster.

The plan was to get Goodwin a bucket by the time the season was over, preferably on senior night. But that plan changed on the opening weekend of the season, over Thanksgiving break, when Bullimore was in town to watch her old team take on Bethel-Tate.

“Amy happened to be there, and a lot of the former players that graduated with Amy and a year after and had known Steph were at all our games,” Tolliver said. “And I thought well, if the game gets away here at the end -- if we start blowing this team out -- I thought about getting her in for the last minute or something and trying to get her a basket that we’d worked on.”

That opportunity came when Little Miami built a sizeable lead heading into the fourth quarter. After a discussion with Bethel-Tate’s head coach, who agreed to let Stephanie come into the game to score, Tolliver called for a sub. And with Bullimore watching, Goodwin sank a shot.

“We put a minute on the clock and the crowd was going nuts,” Tolliver said. “They started chanting her name, and it took her about six minutes or so to finally make the shot but nobody was going to leave until she made the shot. And I remember when she made it, Stephanie came over and gave me a hug and the first thing that she said was, ‘Do you think Amy’s proud of me?’ And I’m like, ‘I guarantee she is.’”

Goodwin then ran up and gave Bullimore, who was sitting behind the Little Miami bench, a big hug.

Tolliver said that Bullimore’s genuine love for Goodwin speaks volumes about her character.

“She was nice to Stephanie -- not to get a pat on the back -- she did it because that’s the right thing to do, it’s how you’re supposed to treat people,” Tolliver said. “Unfortunately, most people aren’t like that anymore.”

But for as much as Bullimore has given Goodwin in friendship, Bullimore says that “being friends with her helped me a lot more than it helped her.”

“Her mom died a couple years ago, and sometimes she’ll get really upset about that but then she’ll always say, ‘I love you, Amy,’” Bullimore said. “She’s really sweet. And she’s always happy, no matter what. Anything can go wrong but she’ll still be happy. And I think that’s really important because I’m always more negative and so she helps me stay positive with that kind of stuff.”

Tolliver believes that Bullimore understood Goodwin because of Bullimore’s rare family dynamic. She has two adopted siblings -- Stephen, 17, who was born with VATER syndrome, and Kyia, 16, who was born with a Chiari Malformation.

Bullimore says that Stephen is the oldest living person in the United States with VATER syndrome, and that he has had over 180 surgeries in his lifetime.

“When I tore my ACL, my brother would say how strong I was, and that always made me laugh because he’s literally had 180-something surgeries and I had my first surgery ever and I was crying like a little baby,” Bullimore said.

Bullimore’s mother adopted Kyia after her previous mother and father -- who were 36 and 14 years old, respectively, and were alcohol and drug abusers -- threw her through a glass table, down the stairs and into a wall when she was little, and she was put up for foster care.

When Bullimore was growing up, she would take care of her little brother and sister when her mom worked at the hospital. It wasn’t easy at times, Bullimore admits, but it was well worth it.

“There’s definitely times where it’s hard,” Bullimore said. “But I think it’s probably the single most important part that has defined who I am today.”

***

While it’s hard for her mother to get to some of her games because of the time she needs to spend with her siblings at night, Bullimore says that they still watch the games online, as do Stephanie and Coach Tolliver.

Tolliver made the trip to Ada for all four of Bullimore’s NCAA Tournament games last spring, sometimes bringing a few of the girls that Bullimore coaches on their AAU team, the Cincy Chargers, along to watch.

Bullimore has coached the 10th and 11th grade program for the past three years, traveling two hours to practices on Wednesdays and Thursdays in the spring to help them develop their game and going out of town most weekends for tournaments, without pay.

For Bullimore, it’s not only a chance to get more gym time in the offseason, but also a way for her to influence the recruitment process for up-and-coming high school prospects.

“My whole recruitment didn’t go as planned, so I kind of wanted to help other people’s recruitment go better and more smoothly,” Bullimore said.

There are usually a couple of Little Miami players on the team as well, which allows Bullimore to continue to give back to the program that she helped save by teaching its youth.

But now, unlike when Bullimore was a sophomore in high school seven years ago, those Little Miami players are a part of a large and competitive program. Tolliver now has three teams -- a varsity, a junior varsity and a freshman team -- with 13 girls on each. During Bullimore’s sophomore year, when she had to recruit to save the program, there were only 13 girls between the varsity and JV teams.

“We’ve made huge strides in our numbers,” Tolliver said. “And across Ohio, more and more teams are having less kids -- it’s hard to find freshman teams anymore -- and our numbers just keep growing. So I’m proud of that, for sure.”

“It’s really cool to see that grow and change,” Bullimore said. “The school district’s also getting bigger and bigger.”

Tolliver says that most people don’t understand how bad things were when he started there seven years ago, when there were just 13 players on the roster and Bullimore was the only returner.

“It’s unbelievable. It’s been long enough that people don’t understand how bad of shape our program was in,” Tolliver said. “When I talk about it today with people, they’re like, ‘You have a real strong program’ and this and that, and I talk about what it was like six or seven years ago, and people don’t really know how bad of shape it was in unless you were there. I mean, we were hanging by a thread.”

Bullimore and Tolliver have grown close over the past seven years -- not only as a player and coach, but as friends. They still communicate on a daily basis and he watches all of her games (usually online during the high school season), and she seeks his feedback afterwards.

But they don’t always talk about basketball. Sometimes, it’s just about life in general.

When Bullimore was a freshman in high school, her parents got divorced, and after that, communication with her father fell off. By the time Tolliver arrived at the school during her sophomore year, he said that he could tell Amy needed someone to talk to. He could fill that role.

“I knew she didn’t really have… you know, her father is still alive, but she wasn’t close to him. And you could tell she probably needed someone to talk to,” Tolliver said. “She had friends on the basketball team but they weren’t her close friends. And so, she just became close to me as far as being able to talk to me and get things off her chest and talk about basketball. She was babysitting our two kids for us and my two kids started treating her like [she was] their sister. And as the years went by, I became good friends with her mom. It just became to where she was part of the family.”

Bullimore says that Tolliver is “basically like my dad now.”

Just over eight months ago, Bullimore and Tolliver hugged after what felt like the end of the world. While the two had seen far worse seasons, whether it be losing 19 games in her sophomore year or suffering a torn ACL in her junior year, this loss was even harder to swallow.

Although ONU found themselves down 21 points to Christopher Newport in the third quarter, they rallied back within three points late in the fourth quarter behind a 19-point, seven-rebound effort from Bullimore.

But eventually, due to an uncharacteristic barrage of late-game three pointers, Christopher Newport pulled away from Northern and won 76-66. The Polar Bears turned it over 19 times, which ultimately doomed them. And just like that, with their first loss, ONU’s season was over.

The deepest NCAA Tournament run and winningest season in program history was done, one win short of a trip to the Final Four.

One week later, Bullimore was named an Honorable Mention All-American. She led the fifth-ranked Polar Bears in scoring (14 points per game) and rebounding (eight boards per game) while turning in a breathtaking NCAA Tournament performance, as she averaged 20 points and eight rebounds per game in Northern’s four biggest contests of the year.

Last week, Bullimore was tabbed as a preseason Honorable Mention All-American by d3hoops.com. She says that she worked hard on her three-point shot this offseason, a facet of her game that has previously been underutilized -- she has shot just six three-pointers in her first three years at ONU. Coach Michele Durand says that she will let the 6’1 center shoot from long distance when it’s appropriate, especially in certain lineups where Bullimore might play the power forward position.

The Polar Bears were ranked seventh in the nation by d3hoops.com in their preseason poll. While they lost three key seniors from last year’s historic team to graduation, a number of experienced players are returning alongside Bullimore, including All-OAC forward Jenna Dirksen and one of the conference’s best defenders in Courtney Cramer.

This season, Northern will try to win their fourth straight OAC title and make it back to the NCAA Tournament for the third straight year.

And as much as Bullimore is willing to talk about last year, she is more eager to move on to this season. This year’s team is focusing on starting over and wiping the slate clean. This weekend, every team in the country will start at 0-0.

“We try not to think as much about last year, we’re trying to recreate this year,” Bullimore said. “We’re not trying to continue it, we’re trying to recreate it. We don’t listen to the rankings and think that we’re better than everybody else, we still have a lot to battle for and prove.”

Tonight, the girl who was once just ‘raw and athletic’ and who single-handedly saved her high school basketball program, will begin her final year of college basketball. The girl who lost all of her Division I looks after tearing her ACL, and who came back stronger, will be running the floor like a deer and swatting shots like flies.

Bullimore and the Polar Bears will begin the most anticipated season in program history. The expectations will be high, as national championship aspirations seem well within reason.

ONU opens their season in Chicago tonight against Bluffton. Tip-off is at 8:30 p.m. And it’s safe to say that, along with the Division III world, Tolliver, Stephanie Goodwin, and the rest of Bullimore’s best friends will be watching.