Like most kids in Indiana, basketball started for Audrey McDonald-Spencer in a driveway.
“We were always in the driveway, beating each other up,” Ball State women’s basketball associate head coach McDonald-Spencer said. “It was just how it was.”
With a basketball-obsessed brother and an uncle who is in the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame, basketball was in McDonald-Spencer’s blood. Growing up playing all sports, it was basketball that stuck.
While at Kokomo High School, McDonald-Spencer scored more than 1,000 points, went 87-14 during her four years and was an Indiana All-Star her senior year. She was led by her uncle, Charlie Hall.
When it came time to pick schools, McDonald-Spencer said the Ball State women’s basketball program did the best job of forming a relationship with her, making it an easy choice to become a Cardinal.
When McDonald-Spencer was a sophomore in high school, former Ball State head coach Tracy Roller and then-associate head coach Lisa McDonald took her to center court at Worthen Arena and gave her a scholarship offer on the spot.
“Once I got some Big Ten offers, they (Ball State staff) still hung in and created the relationship,” McDonald-Spencer said. “It was the relationships, the people, the team.”
As a freshman, McDonald-Spencer said she had the perfect senior class to show her the ropes. They showed her how to lead, keep a team together and help teammates make an impact.
Although she remembers her freshman year fondly, her junior year was the season most people remember.
The Cardinals 2008-09 team got over the barrier of defeating Bowling Green to win the Mid-American Conference (MAC) Tournament and headed to the NCAA Tournament.
In their first round contest, Ball State faced off against the previous two-time national champions, the Tennessee Volunteers, coached by the legendary Pat Summitt. The Volunteers had never been beaten in the first two rounds of the tournament.
As the final buzzer rang, Ball State had made history with a 71-55 victory.
“Yeah, that was special,” McDonald-Spencer said. “That is what everyone remembers.”
McDonald-Spencer has stayed in touch with her former teammates through group chats, alumni games, and get-togethers in the summers, she said there were no fake relationships, and they are all still close.
“When we need each other, we are there,” she said. “We’ve been at weddings, we’ve been at babies' births, all the things. Even the hard things, like divorce.”
Seeing the relationships she has formed, McDonald-Spencer stresses the importance of those relationships on her current team.
McDonald-Spencer always wanted to be a coach, and former Ball State coach Kelly Packard (2008-11) gave her a shot in the director of operations role right out of college. From director of operations to assistant coach to associate head coach, McDonald-Spencer has been coaching with current head coach Brady Sallee for 12 seasons.
“He was a different personality than anybody I had worked for or played for,” McDonald-Spencer said. “Very passionate, very black and white.”
When making his decision to keep her on staff at Ball State, he said it has been one of the best decisions he’s made as a coach.
“None of this would have happened without her,” Sallee said. “I believe that.”
One thing that has changed is how she works with Sallee. She said she is like an extension of Sallee, a right-hand man (woman) in her position.
“I’ve learned so much from him in terms of what mattered,” McDonald-Spencer said. “The details, all of those things. I consider Brady one of my best friends; he is a mentor who teaches me something new every day. He has given me more and more responsibilities as we’ve gone through it, but I could not ask for a better boss, mentor and human being to work with.”
As she learned the art of coaching, McDonald-Spencer said she would almost be a friend to players when she first started out, but now understands the importance of having tough conversations with players.
“You are not just teaching them basketball, you are teaching them life,” McDonald-Spencer said. “You don’t do it for them to score 20 and have 10 rebounds. It is life, it is so they can be successful in life. Whether it is a mom, CEO, teacher or nurse, it doesn’t matter. You teach them the life skills in how to be a successful woman.”
The relationship between Sallee and McDonald-Spencer has grown. Sallee said she understands how he wants to run the program and can complete his sentences.
“She is a head coach who just happens to be on my staff,” Sallee said. “She is better than a lot of the people I go up against day in and day out.”
McDonald-Spencer’s main focus on coaching is the “back” (point guard) position. It features juniors Ally Becki and Nyla Hampton, sophomore Hana Mühl and freshman Ashlynn Brooke.
McDonald-Spencer recruited Becki very early, having a lot of long conversations on the phone while she was still at Brownsburg High School.
“Watching her growth has been awesome,” McDonald-Spencer said. “She is figuring out what she needs to do. It is great to watch them grow as people on the court and off. She is only going to get better.”
During Becki’s freshman year of high school, she said McDonald-Spencer was the person who guided her through the recruiting process.
“Anytime I talked to her it felt like I was talking to someone just to talk about my life too, like a friend,” Becki said. “That made me very comfortable with her, and seeing the relationship we built over the phone is impressive. It was important to me and one of the main reasons why I came here.”
Becki said McDonald-Spencer always made Ball State feel like a home.
“She wants the best for you,” Becki said. “She is nit-picky to make you a better player, and I appreciate that. It is stuff like that that will make us a better team.”
Becki said it can be refreshing to have someone like McDonald-Spencer to go talk to about normal day-to-day activities instead of always talking about basketball.
“It is just being able to get away,” Becki said. “I think that is what made our bond closer.”
Before she was an assistant coach, assistant coach Moriah Monaco was a player under Sallee and McDonald-Spencer. In Monaco’s second year at Ball State, McDonald-Spencer became her position coach. Monaco said they instantly clicked.
“There were countless amount of times I was on her couch,” Monaco said. “Just talking about life and basketball. She jokes now that I am one of her kids, but it is probably true because she is like a mother figure to me.”
Sallee said McDonald-Spencer recruits how she played: relentlessly.
“Since I have been here for half of my life, [Ball State] runs deep,” McDonald-Spencer said. “They get that it is more than the name on the back and more about the one on the front. I live that, so I think they respect that.”
McDonald-Spencer said it would have to be “something” to get her to move, emphasizing a big job. She said she does have aspirations to be a head coach but said she is happy at Ball State with no desire to go anywhere else.
Recruiting. Traveling. Talking to players. Getting children to school. Is someone home to watch the children? Practices. Games. Film. With long hours and something to do almost every day, McDonald-Spencer’s schedule is a hefty one, just like any coach.
McDonald-Spencer also has to balance her work with a family of her own.
“Is it always glorious? No,” McDonald-Spencer said. “There are a lot of late nights. A lot of them going with me to recruit, but I look at it as a blessing that they are experiencing all this stuff.”
McDonald-Spencer said it has been such a blessing for her kids to grow up around a Division-I level program.
“I joke that my kids have been on multiple charter flights from Muncie to wherever, and they just think it is a way of life because they don’t know any better,” McDonald-Spencer said. “To be able to give them that experience is awesome. They think every year in March we are going to Cleveland; that is just what we do, which is cool. They want to be at every home game.”
Sallee said the family culture is refreshing, helpful and fun when you love the players and people you work with.
“Our families are really good friends, and that makes this journey that much more enjoyable,” Sallee said.
In times when McDonald-Spencer’s husband has to work, her children can often be seen at practices or around the program. She said Sallee understands the family aspect and treats her children like his own.
“My kids love the team,” she said. “They love it. They breathe it. They understand it.”
The lifelong Cardinal
Ball State is all McDonald-Spencer knows.
“It has been a part of who I am, now it is a part of who my family is,” McDonald-Spencer said. “It’s everything, I do not know how to describe it. I love everything about this place. The love is real for this place.”
Sallee said if McDonald-Spencer had not coached, her love for Ball State would have never wavered.
“If you are friends with her, she is loyal to you. If you work with her, she is loyal to you. If you played for her, she is loyal to you. I don’t know that she has an enemy, and that is probably a big reason why.”
Sallee said she could be a head coach whenever and wherever she wants. He can even see her sitting in his head-coaching chair, something he hopes one day happens.
“I am loyal as the day is long to this university, and I love it to the core,” McDonald-Spencer said.