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Inspired by past legends, Lane changed from center to guard en route to Liberty High

Tuesday, Jan. 28 | By Jeff Malmgren
Liberty High sophomore Ashley Lane appears intent on following the path of recent Eagles superstars and current college players Liz Wood and Jazmon Gwathmey. --Photo by Rick Wasser
The trajectory of Ashley Lane’s basketball life changed after she attended her first Liberty High girls game as an elementary school student.

She sat next to epiphany in the bleachers that night six years ago.

It tapped her on the shoulder. It pointed down at a 6-foot-1 forward who dribbled up court like a smaller guard. It whispered, "That can be you."

Lane suddenly realized that a tall girl, like herself, could do more than just anchor near the basket with her hands in the air.

Standing 5-6 at the time, Lane was the tallest child in her fifth grade class. Naturally, coaches herded her into the lane to play center for her youth basketball team.

But after watching the Liberty Eagles play that night, she began working on her ball-handling skills, determined not to let her height stereotype her basketball identity as a center.

It worked. She eventually dribbled her way out of the box.

Lane evolved into a guard by the time she began middle school. Then, as a high school freshman, she joined the Liberty varsity team and immediately became the Eagles’ starting point guard.

Now, as a sophomore, she’s the driving force – quite literally – of Liberty’s offense. Lane creates off the dribble more than anyone else on the team; perhaps more than anyone else in the Evergreen District.

“The things she can put together make such a weapon for us,” Liberty second-year coach Ashton Girolmo said. “She makes a calculated move to get past her defender and can score herself or look to hit one of her teammates.

“It’s wonderful to have a player that can do that for you – can make the wise decisions,” she said.

Lane and seniors India Turner and Kiana Smith have led the Eagles into the district lead with a 4-0 record (8-4 overall) as they strive to return Liberty to the elite level it occupied before Lane arrived at the school last season.

When Lane was a freshman in 2012-13, Liberty ended up with its worst record in more than nine years. The Eagles failed to win the Evergreen District for the first time in history after claiming three consecutive titles, and they finished with a 9-14 record overall.

“This year we’re doing a phenomenal job of saying, ‘We’re Liberty, and we're going to bring it back,’” Lane said. “We have a pretty good team. … I think we can do some damage.”

Lane joined the Liberty program after the likes of Jazmon Gwathmey (James Madison University), Liz Wood (University of Maine) and Bri Croushorn graduated following three consecutive appearances in the Group AA state tournament.

“Last year I think we were very afraid of the fact that they had done so well,” Lane said. “We didn’t have a single senior. Instead of embracing the fact that we were young and going to be together for … years, we kind of hid from it.”

Lane knows the Eagles’ history well. She watched closely as Liberty made its first state appearance in program history during the 2009-10 season, losing in the Group AA Division 4 quarterfinals.

Then she watched the Eagles win the AA D-4 state championship in 2010-11 and finish as AA D-3 runner-up in 2011-12.

“We followed them pretty heavily,” Lane’s father, Todd, said. “It was a way to get good exposure to basketball at that level. … We went to their games – more than you could imagine – home and away.”

“My dad [dragged] me to the first game,” Ashley Lane said.

That’s when, as a fifth grader, she first saw Gwathmey play – the 6-1 forward who navigated the floor like a guard – and she couldn’t get enough.

“I became completely in love with her style of play,” Lane said. “And Liz. A lot of what I do is modeled after them.

“Jaz, being 6-foot-something, and still being able to handle the ball,” Lane said. “And Liz was an amazing shooter and really confident. I realized I needed to be more like them.”

So, while still in elementary school, Lane made it her goal to become like Gwathmey and Wood, and to eventually add to the Liberty tradition that duo had amply enriched.

“I knew I wanted to start as a freshman,” Lane said. “I had been preparing for that ever since I first watched them.”

Hardwood origin

As a pre-teen, Ashley Lane liked gymnastics and riding horses. She never considered playing basketball.

Then, during fourth grade, Lane's friend Mariah asked her if they could play together on a Catholic Youth Organization basketball team.

"I thought it was an awful idea," Lane said recently. "I was a girly-girl."

It wasn't love at first sight, either. Lane walked off the court crying during one of her first games.

"I actually hated it,” she said. “But after a few games, then I just fell in love."

“From the beginning, she moved pretty well on the floor," Todd Lane, her father, said. "She started showing promise."

Nonetheless, after a year of playing, Ashley Lane didn't feel completely comfortable with her role as the team’s center.

“I was basically told to stand in the middle with my hands up," she said. "That was my job."

So, after Lane watched Jazmon Gwathmey play for the first time, and saw the unique skill set that the Liberty sophomore had, she decided to expand her own repertoire on the court.

“Jaz would get steals and take the ball up court on her own," Lane said. "Me and my dad started working on ball-handling."

Lane also started playing for an AAU team in fifth grade to help hone her skills. Eventually, at Taylor Middle School, she shifted from center to guard. She settled into a shooting guard role as her scoring ability developed and Taylor went undefeated during her seventh grade season.

“Even [before] then, we were thinking she had a chance to step in and play a role for [Liberty] from the get-go,” Todd Lane said.

His daughter took over the point guard duties for Taylor in eighth grade and then she slid into that same role for Liberty the next season as a freshman.

“We were desperately in need of someone who could handle the ball for us,” Ashton Girolmo said. “Asking that out of a freshman, no coach wants to do it, but it’s wonderful to have someone as fearless as her. She did a great job of handling that pressure.”

Girolmo was transitioning during that 2011-12 season from assistant coach to head coach after Lauren Milburn resigned. The Eagles also lost all five starters to graduation after the 2010-11 season, including the program’s all-time leading scorer Liz Wood, 6-foot-4 center Bri Croushorn and point guard Aubri Crummett.

Lane helped fill the void along with four Liberty juniors.

“She’s a really unique player,” Girolmo said. “She has become very, very versatile.”

Lane averaged 8.9 points per game as a freshman with a game-high of 21 points. An all-Evergreen District first team selection, she led the Eagles with 2.1 assists and 1.9 steals per game, with a game-high of nine assists, and also averaged 4.0 rebounds.

“We saw the talent and potential she had, and what she means to the team,” said India Turner, a current Liberty senior and the Eagles’ leading scorer this seaon and last season. “If you can play, you can play,” regardless of age.

This season, Lane again starts games as Liberty’s point guard. Then she often shifts to shooting guard when on the floor at the same time as Eagles senior Kaila Blackwell, who comes off the bench to play point.

Regardless which position she’s in, Lane plays aggressively with supreme confidence in her handle. She’s typically the deftest ball-handler on the floor – equally skilled dribbling with both hands.

She’s right-handed, but, curiously, often seems most comfortable using her left hand.

“I have absolutely no clue why,” Lane said. “My dad gets really mad about that – when I stay left and don't go back to my right.”

Ambidextrous confidence, however, allows Lane to frequently use dribble-drives to create offense for Liberty. She’s an atypical sophomore girl – never hesitant or nervous to attack.

“A lot of our guards, we sometimes get afraid to take it and drive to the lane,” Turner said. “She's not, and that helps out a lot.”

Lane hasn’t always had that mentality, though.

“She has had to push herself to … be assertive to take shots and create,” Todd Lane said. “A lot of kids go through that – they won't shoot.”

Gwathmey, for example, fought passiveness as a freshman and sophomore despite Milburn imploring her to take full advantage of her skills.

Now, Girolmo runs plenty of plays to facilitate penetration by Ashley Lane, which opens up diverse scoring options for the Eagles.

“She does a phenomenal job of protecting the ball while still being able to create something offensively,” Girolmo said. “That’s huge.

“She knows how to pull a defender over to her and open up her teammates,” Girolmo said. “She sees things before they happen. She does a great job working with the post players, using the pick-and-roll action to get herself to the rim or to dish.”

Lane is averaging 11.5 points, 3.3 rebounds, 2.2 assists and 1.4 steals per contest. She's also shooting 84 percent from the free-throw line.

“Very good at looking for [open] people,” Kiana Smith, Liberty’s center, said.

“My favorite thing is passing,” Lane said. “I like getting the assist and creating the opportunity for my teammates.”

During the Eagles’ first three games this season, Lane averaged 14.7 points, but hit a rough patch and averaged 7.9 over the next seven games. Her ability to finish plays hasn’t seemed to catch up completely with her ability to create opportunities. She is, after all, only a sophomore.

“Sometimes she'll just have her games where she can't get a basket,” Turner said. “But, either way, she's still a huge part of our offense.”

That was the case last Jan. 16 during a 46-43 win over Eastern View. Lane made only one of 18 field goal attempts, but finished with seven points, five rebounds, three assists and two steals, and she sealed the win with a pair of free throws.

“It’s crucial that she keeps her head in the game and continues to set up in the offense,” Girolmo said. “It shows a lot of character – she didn’t hesitate and she continued to shoot.”

Lane rebounded during the Eagles' next game, scoring a career-high 28 points during a 55-40 win over King George on Jan. 20.

Following footsteps

Ashley Lane is stumped.

When asked to name her favorite movie star, she can’t come up with one. So she apologizes like it’s a personal shortcoming or charter flaw.

Lane has a slightly different personality off the court compared to on it, but saying “Sorry” is one trait that carries over.

“She’s the first kid to come up and apologize for a mistake she made,” Ashton Girolmo said. “But she doesn’t do it during the game, anymore.”

As a freshman, Lane sometimes did.

She dedicates a lot of time to perfecting her play – the proverbial gym rat – so it’s no surprise that she looks for feedback from her coaches, even if it is occasionally ill-timed.

“She’d turn and look at the bench,” Girolmo said of Lane’s freshman season. “It was kind of funny. I told her, ‘Don’t look at me; I already know you made a mistake.’ Now she will just hustle her butt down court and try to make a stop defensively to make up for” the mistake.

Girolmo had the same tendency when she was a young player, before going on to star at the University of Mary Washington. So Lane is in good company.

In fact, the Liberty sophomore hopes one day to become like Girolmo.

“I would love to coach at the collegiate level, but … high school would be pretty awesome too,” she said. “Being a point guard, you're kind of the coach on the floor. … I like helping my teammates out and teaching them things, if I can.”

Lane already analyses film like a coach. She frequently uses the Hudl app to watch footage of Liberty’s games and scout opponents. She also attends summer camps to learn new skills and continues to play for an AAU team.

“She’s just soaking in everything possible,” Girolmo said. “And she’s always asking, ‘When can I come in and shoot around.”

That’s a trait Lane shares with former Liberty player Liz Wood, who became the Eagles’ most decorated player, won a state championship and went on to play at the University of Maine.

“She was always in the gym,” Girolmo said. “They’re similar in just how much work they put into developing skills.”

Lane doesn’t even waste time playing any other sports.

“Basketball certainly dominates her life,” Todd Lane, her father, said.

So while she can’t name an actor she likes best, Ashley Lane does know her favorite movie. Naturally, it’s “Love and Basketball.”

Another Liberty sophomore once considered that her favorite film.

Liz Wood.

- - - - -

The Ashley Lane File

Family: Father Todd is a software engineer, mother is Dee, brother Cooper is a sophomore at James Madison and a Liberty High graduate.

Favorite place to be: “The basketball court. I just like how it's such a demanding sport. You have to be good at everything."

Favorite basketball move: “I really like the Euro step [with a ball fake]. You fake going one way and a lot of times the defense literally turns around to see where you passed it, but you still have it [and change direction]. It's just a great way to score.”

Identity: “Off the court,” Liberty coach Ashton Girolmo said, “she’s mostly quiet, but on the court you’ll see she gets a little feisty. It’s kind of neat to see the difference.”

Favorite sports team/athlete: Phoenix Mercury/Diana Taurasi. “Just the way that she plays – she’s very powerful and she knows she's good, but without being cocky.”

Favorite music/artist: “I like all types of music, but I’ll say Taylor Swift, I guess. Before our games, I like to listen to hardcore rap music. I don't particularly like it, but it gets me fired up.”

Favorite TV show: “Dance Moms.” “It's just addicting.”

Favorite food: “I really like seafood.”

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