Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Ashley Kirk Aaron Steps Into Justin's World

Ashley Kirk's name may not be one that is familiar to many softball fans. A 2014 graduate from the North Texas Mean Green, she didn't dominate headlines or capture a national audience. But if you ever got to see her play, she'd make you a fan.

Cred: sjmiller Photography
Ashley was a star in two collegiate conferences, though she only suited up for the Mean Green. Thanks to a 2013-14 move from the Sun Belt to Conference USA, Ashley has the distinction of following up her all-Sun Belt 2013 honor with a 2014 all-CUSA award.

Ashley holds seven career UNT softball records, including the single-game, season, and career marks for pitching strikeouts.

In addition to all-conference awards in multiple conferences, Ashley is part of a couple of other oddities, as well. After setting the single-season strikeout mark in her freshman season, Ashley broke it in her sophomore year... a record that was then broken in each of the next two years. I don't know the number of players who have broken their own record in every season they played, but I'd guess it's pretty low.

Ashley also had a pretty special day in 2013, in a doubleheader against Louisiana-Monroe, then the Mean Green's conference foes. Pitching both games of a doubleheader, she spent ten innings of work in the circle and did not allow a single hit. The dual no-nos bettered her performance from the season before, when she recorded a pair of one-hit games against the Warhawks.

Now a teacher in Texas, Ashley took time out to answer my questions about:

  • How she got started playing softball
  • How she hopes to be remembered
  • "Suffering" through a surprising coaching change in the middle of her career
  • and more!
You can find Ashley, who is now Mrs. Aaron, on Facebook and Twitter.

How did you get started playing softball?
     I got started playing softball when my father, Jeff Kirk, put me into t-ball at age 5. At 10, I knew it was what I wanted to do as long as I possibly could. He got me onto a select team, the Texas Comets; I played with them for about a year, started taking pitching and catching lessons, and moved on to the Texas Blaze, which is who I played with for the rest of my select career; I even coach for them now J

Who would you call your hero or role model, and how did that person’s influence affect you on the field?
     Without a doubt, that would be my parents. I have two of the most amazing, dedicated parents that I could have asked for: there is my dad who has worked his entire life to make sure that we never went without and that we always had most of what we wanted, but everything that we needed. Then there’s my mom, who has been supportive, caring, and empathetic whenever we needed her. On the field, I always wanted to please my dad and do the best that I could so that I wouldn’t get yelled at after the games. Let me set the record straight, my dad is a wonderful man; he’s a perfectionist and only wanted the best for his children. As I got older, I realized that yelling was his way of pushing me to be the best that I could and used this to push myself to always be the best that I could. He is the only voice I could ever hear. He used to sit out in left field behind the fence and I could still hear him, only him. Instead of being fearful of what he had to say, I thrived off of it. It became his words I would tell myself before and during games to get me through. I’ve always known that, no matter what, my parents would always be there for me, and what better heroes could you ask for than those who love you unconditionally? I can’t think of anyone.

After setting the mark your freshman season, you easily broke the UNT single-season strikeout mark in each of the following seasons. What was it like, not just setting a new number each year, but breaking your own record and now holding the top four spots all-time in that category?
     I actually got/get this question a lot; when I came to college I never set goals to break records. My goals were to be the best that I could be on and off the field and to leave a legacy of someone who was respected for my beliefs and who I was. I’ve always known that softball is something temporary, a means to an end, to get a degree and make a living for myself and I wanted to be known for things besides just a softball player, even though that is who I’ll always be. I know that one day, my records will be broken and I’m okay with that; they’re just numbers, but the friends and memories I have are what matter to me. Each season, though, the thought loomed in the back of my mind that I may or may not surpass my records. Each time that I did, I knew that it was a gift from God, not anything of my own doing. I don’t deserve to be blessed the way that He has. I’m extremely flawed, but He chose to bless me anyways. It was a weird feeling; knowing that I held the new record and the old, almost surreal. I still don’t think that it’s hit me that I hold them and I doubt that it ever will. I serve an awesome God and know that it is for His Glory that I have those. I also have to give credit to my teammates; there is no way that I could have gotten those strikeouts on my own. It takes an entire team, not just a catcher. I knew that no matter what, my defense had my back and that puts a pitcher at ease and allows them to just be themselves and wholly confident. Without them, those records would be nonexistent.

Your name is all throughout the program’s record books, and it figures to be there for quite a while. When Mean Green softball players see or hear the name Ashley Kirk in five or ten years, what do you hope is the legacy you have passed down to that generation of players?
     I hope to be remembered as “Mom”. That was the running joke on the team, that I was the mom of the team. I felt a sense of responsibility for all of my teammates and hope that they remember how much I love each and every one of them. I also hope that they remember me as someone who gave everything that I had for them and that I never took them for granted.

Right in the middle of your career, there was a somewhat-surprising change at the head coaching position, and Coach Kee came in for your final year of eligibility. Tell me what that transition was like and some of the similarities and differences in both coaches’ styles.
     Oh my goodness, “somewhat-surprising” doesn’t do it justice! I was scared to death! I was student-teaching, had elbow surgery 3 days before I started student teaching, and didn’t know what to expect. I remember telling my mom “I don’t know if I can do it, I don’t think that I can prove myself again for one more year, I don’t know if it’ll be worth it.” She told me that she didn’t care if I played another day in my life, she was proud of me and it was my decision. I decided to give it the fall and would go from there. So I sent Coach Kee an email telling her about everything that I had going on in the fall and she sent me a two-page email in return, saying that she would work with me and how everything would be just fine and she knew what it was like to student teach and to have softball at the same time. So, I had the elbow surgery, started student teaching, went to my first practice under Coach Kee and never looked back. From day one, I knew that I was supposed to be there and finish out my career with her as my head coach, and thank God that I did. I would have regretted it if I had quit. That’s not in my nature.

As for coaching styles, they are polar opposites, but I know that they both did everything that they could to make sure that I was given every opportunity to thrive. Hubbard did a lot of amazing things for me and stuck by me through two knee surgeries and an elbow injury (all within a 4 year span). Coach Kee taught me an amazing amount about the game. I see the game completely different and understand why certain things are done certain ways. I know that I’m a better coach for having played under both coaches.

When you’re having such success as you did, with incredibly-low ERA and opponent’s numbers, what do you have to do to keep your mindset clear and focused on the next game?
     Joshua 1:9 says, “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous, do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go” and Jeremiah 29:11 says, “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans to prosper you, not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” These two verses single-handedly got me through my entire career. I knew that God would be faithful and if it was in His will, I would do well. If at any time I started to feel anxious or nervous during the game, I would remember these verses and feel better.
Off the field, I read a lot of books. I love to read; it calms me and takes me to another world. Madison Thompson and I read more books than I can even remember; we could have had our own book club with just the two of us. J

I recall one day in 2013, I believe it was, when you threw two no-nos in the same day against ULM. Recount that day for me, if you can, and what was going through your mind at different points during the day, such as between games and after the second game when everything was official.
     Oh gosh, let’s see… well, the vast majority of my family was at that game: my mom, dad, brother, sister-in-law, sister, fianc√©, and furry nephew. Waking up that day, I just felt like it was going to be a good day. We had been preparing all week for their style of playing and I knew what their hitters would swing at. I could see each and every pitch before I threw it. I think what also helped is the year before, I threw two 1-hitters back to back and they were essentially the same team, so I knew their hitters. I was so completely focused those games, it was like everything was finely tuned and running smoothly. It was weird. I remember thinking to myself that I felt different that day, like I was watching from the outside. It was a strange feeling, but a very good feeling at the same time. It didn’t hit me until I got home that night what had happened.

What is the best advice you would give to a young player who wants to play Division 1 ball one day?
     Understand that very few of us go on to play Pro, so go somewhere you can get a degree that will put you in a position to be able to depend on yourself. You’re a student-athlete, emphasis on the student, so find something that makes you happy and go at it with everything in you. That was one of the most important things to me when I was looking at places to go. I knew that UNT had a great education program so that was a huge draw for me. My other piece of advice is: go somewhere you’ll get to play your whole career. It’s worth it. I loved every single minute of my 5 year career, and at the end of the day, I truly do bleed green. So much so, it was one of our main colors at our wedding!

Now graduated and with your playing career over, what are your plans for the future? Do you have plans or hopes on how you can stay involved with the game of softball?
     My plans have been the same since I was in the 7th grade: to be a Spanish teacher and a softball coach. I’m doing that now and I love every single minute of it! The annoying children make it worth it when you see them understand what you’ve been teaching all week. I know that I am exactly where I’m supposed to be. I’m lucky to get to stay a part of the softball world via coaching; it’s truly my passion.

Was playing ball past college something you had the opportunity to do or had interest in doing?
     I had the opportunity to go overseas and play this past summer and into the spring, but after just getting married and starting my new job, it just wasn’t in the plan for me. I would have loved to, but I know my body and after 4 orthopedic surgeries within my career, it wasn’t plausible.

Say a movie was going to be made about your life. What would you call the film and who would you choose to play you?
     Hahaha! I would probably call it “This Amazing Life” since I know that my life has been amazing compared to others’. I would say that I would choose Katherine Heigl to play me. (I had to ask my husband about that one!)

Final question! Let’s say you were stranded on a deserted island, but could take three things with you, what would you take? (Boats and phones are off-limits).
     I would choose to take the book Pride and Prejudice, a knife, and my husband (who else would it be better to spend time with on a deserted island?)

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