They’re as inseparable as they are talented.
But they're also stubborn and unyielding … especially in admitting they actually like each other.
“They’re best friends, and neither one of them will admit it because neither one of them is willing to admit they like each other that much,” Cedar Cliff baseball head coach Scott Lackey said. “And I don’t know who to even compare them to because they have such a different relationship. … And if you ask them they’ll say, ‘No, I hate him.’”
Colts seniors Bobby Whalen and Donovon Ball are best frenemies. They irritate the heck out of each other, yet for some reason they refuse to leave each other’s side, playing the same three sports together for most of their lives. They go on vacations together, too.
They also formed the core of three squads — football, wrestling and baseball — that made historic runs, cementing their names in Cedar Cliff history … together.
They are so inextricably linked that there is only one fitting way to send them off.
As The Sentinel’s Boys Co-Athletes of the Year.
So alike, yet so different
Whalen and Ball are polar opposites.
Whalen is the shifty, electric, sinewy, pure athlete with excellent speed. He roams center field better than just about anyone, and Louisville baseball gobbled him up early. He is also a gifted receiver/safety in football, possibly a Division I athlete there if he had wanted to pursue it. He’s got coach speak down and is far more reserved on the field than most of his teammates.
Ball, meanwhile, is short, stocky, plays with brute force and never shies away from contact — just watch highlights of him tackling Whalen after the last District 3 baseball title. Ball is a battering ram at linebacker and fullback, one of the state’s best heavyweight wrestlers — and bound for Penn State — and did the dirty work at catcher for four years. He’s fiery and emotional inside the lines, more than willing to strut his stuff after a big play.
Whalen and Ball are also eerily similar.
Both could have gone D-I in at least two sports — football and baseball for Whalen, wrestling and baseball for Ball. In fact, their coaches see paths to D-I spots in all three sports.
“If Bobby would have never left wrestling, I think there’s a very good chance you’re seeing him in that group with Michael [Cassidy], JJ [Wilson] and Donovon,” Cedar Cliff wrestling coach Rob Rapsey said.
“Donovon’s size, where wrestling that didn’t hurt him so much, that’s what hurt him in football,” Colts football coach Colin Gillen said.
But that’s enough for the what-ifs.
Both are also cerebral players. Both are exceptionally hardworking, coaches said. Both are relentless and despise losing. They’re also brutal trash talkers with each other and their teammates, yet some of the best leaders their coaches could ask for in a deep senior class in all three of their sports.
“I don’t know that the drive that they had, football-wise, baseball-wise, was any different,” Gillen said. “They wanted to be the first guy, they wanted to win.”
They’re also some of the best three-sport athletes Cumberland County has produced in recent years. Both are multi-time All-Sentinel First Team picks in multiple sports, and Ball is the reigning Defensive Player of the Year in football.
Ball was the centerpiece of the area’s best football defense this year, recording 105 tackles and 7.5 sacks as the Colts made their first District 3 semifinal since 1996. Whalen was a first team defensive back this past season with two interceptions, but he was also immensely valuable on offense with nearly 1,000 net yards. He subbed in for an injured Chris Dare under center and nearly led a comeback upset of Manheim Central in that semi.
In wrestling, it was Ball’s battles with Northern’s Kyle Swartz that garnered all the headlines during another All-Sentinel First Team campaign. He lost all four times, narrowly missing out on a state championship in an instant classic, but he finished with 121 career wins and a PSU offer. Whalen, meanwhile, kept Dallastown’s John Ligon from pinning him in a critical 160-pound bout during the District 3 team wrestling championships, helping the Colts win their second team title in four years.
Then in baseball, Whalen capped arguably the greatest Colts career on the diamond in history with 100 hits and 100 runs, the first to reach either milestone, securing yet another All-Sentinel First Team pick in his best sport with a .462 average, 40 runs and 41 RBIs. He and Ball, a perennially underrated backstop who caught nearly every game of the past four years, led the Colts to their second District 3 title and the program’s first PIAA semifinal appearance.
In all, Ball took part in six District 3 titles — two baseball, two wrestling team duals crowns, two wrestling individual team titles — and Whalen can claim a share of five of those golds.
“I’m not gonna say that I was surprised that [they accomplished all of this],” Rapsey said. “You could see the whole time they were coming up. … Their drive and their compete level is very high and always has been. And you need that in sports.”
Long time coming
The way their coaches tell it, the best frenemies had the makings of future high school standouts early.
Rapsey said their athleticism stood out early in youth wrestling programs. And Ball served as a ball boy for Gillen’s football team.
“[Ball] was always an intense kid, always an extremely likeable kid, and a Colt throughout,” Gillen said. “I first remember watching [Whalen] play in a pony Super Bowl when he was a tailback. … I said, ‘This is going to be one heck of a football player.’”
The pair played travel baseball together.
They have different upbringings, with Whalen just the latest in a line of collegiate athletes — father, Bob, wrestled at Cornell after winning a District 3 football title in 1987 with Cedar Cliff, and older brother Cole went to Lafayette for football — and Ball lives with his dad and sister, and his mom is a teacher at the high school.
While they come from different family structures, they do share one thing:
“[Whalen] said to me one time, ‘Coach, I just don’t want to disappoint my mom,’ Lackey said. “[They’re] two kids that if I had to describe them, their two kids that are phenomenal athletes that are scared to death to disappoint their mothers.”
The pair blossomed over the past four years as mom-fearing boys intent on winning at all costs. They took their lumps as freshmen, especially on the diamond where both struggled against varsity pitching. Those early lessons served to teach Ball and Whalen, and they quickly became dynamic athletes in all three sports.
They hope to make names at their next destinations. Whalen hopes to make the College World Series one day soon. Ball, who is young for his grade, Rapsey said, joins a juggernaut Penn State wrestling program with blue chip names all over the roster.
“He’s not in the stratosphere as far as their recruits,” Rapsey said, adding he thinks Ball has the right mental tenacity to excel with the Nittany Lions. “But he has a lot of those other intangibles.”
Etched in gold
There is just one argument that Ball can assuredly win when the two inevitably trade barbs: he’s won more District 3 titles with Cedar Cliff.
Ball’s six includes four in his best sport, wrestling. Whalen only wrestled as a sophomore and senior, a part of three of those titles.
After a few years away from the mat, he was coaxed back to wrestling as a sophomore by Rapsey. The longtime coach said he knew he needed Whalen’s leadership and work ethic on the team to help win titles, but he had to be smart about recruiting the baseball standout. Word had already spread across the halls of Cedar Cliff High School that Rapsey was going to make a pitch.
Whalen’s family didn’t believe he could be swayed, but Rapsey bided his time until after the football season.
He finally got a meeting with Whalen, and when the then-sophomore agreed to join the team, Rapsey quickly got a call from his stunned mom and a text from Cole that simply said, “You’re good.”
Rapsey had to work some magic again before the 2018-19 season to get Whalen out one more time, but it was far easier, he said.
It’s those two seasons that solidifies Whalen’s status to Rapsey. He didn’t have to wrestle, not with Louisville’s scholarship offer on the table. His college career was already set, and wrestling is obviously a physical sport that could have potentially jeopardized that.
But Whalen wants to, more than just about anything, help Cedar Cliff win, his coaches said. And that is a legacy he and Ball leave behind.
They are two of the winningest athletes — the entire senior class is — the school has likely produced. For all three sports the past four years have included some new program benchmarks.
“I think their legacy is they have made each program they were a part of the best it’s ever been,” Lackey said. “And then you think about what they did in the wrestling scene [with four titles]. … And then you look at what we’ve done [in baseball]. … Everything that they’ve touched over the last four years has become better.”
And they did it together.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated Donovon Ball lives with his mother. He lives with his father and sister. The Sentinel regrets this mistake.