By the time Salisbury goalie Ashton Wheatley had finished her junior year, she already had more hardware in her trophy case than most players could hope to collect in a career.
Her stellar performance in leading the Sea Gulls to the Division III national championship last May earned tournament Most Valuable Player honors, the perfect complement to her second straight Division III Goalkeeper of the Year award. As they aim to repeat as champs, the No. 2 Sea Gulls are 19-1 heading into Saturday's home game vs. undefeated Augustana (Ill.) at 11:30 a.m. in the regional semifinals of the NCAA tournament.
Wheatley's exceptional athleticism makes her a dual threat in the goal. Her quick hands and reflexes are tough to beat from 8 meters or from point-blank range and, with her speed, she never hesitates to get out of the crease and disrupt the opposition's attack.
"She's like a midfielder playing goalie and she's fearless," Franklin & Marshall coach Mike Faith said. "She's not afraid to go out and take risks and steal a possession. She's not afraid of the ball. She's just a great goalie."
Earlier this year, Wheatley stopped a free-position shot against Faith's Diplomats, then ranked No. 4 in the nation, with about a minute left to ensure a 9-8 victory. In four wins over three years against Franklin & Marshall, she had 29 saves but also grabbed 11 ground balls and caused seven turnovers.
She does some of her best work in the NCAA tournament. In an 8-7 comeback victory over Middlebury in last year's semifinals, she made two highlight-reel stops within three seconds late in the game. In the 12-5 championship victory over Trinity (Conn.), she had nine saves.
Wheatley, 21, is so good that her older sister Allie said Division I coaches have asked why Ashton is not playing for them. This spring, she was one of only two Division III players named to the Tewaaraton Award watch list, the top 51 players across all divisions of the women's college game.
Four years ago, however, Ashton Wheatley wasn't going to play at all. She didn't think she was good enough.
Her high school team at the small, private Salisbury School on the Eastern Shore included a lot of newcomers to the sport and didn't win many games even though she posted a save rate as high as 56 percent one season. She didn't play club lacrosse and, despite the best efforts of her high school coach, she wasn't recruited by colleges.
"Everybody who was getting recruited, they did have that club experience," Wheatley said, "so I didn't think I could go D-I even though a lot of people were telling me I should. I knew I wanted to do nursing, and nursing and D-I are almost incompatible. It would have been such an undertaking. Even in Division III, it's a huge time commitment. I love sports, but at that point, I thought college was the time to settle down and get on my career path."
Her sister had a different idea.
Allie, who played midfield for the Sea Gulls while in the nursing program, finally convinced her sister that she should play.
"I just told her how much I liked my teammates and how awesome Salisbury lacrosse is," said Allie, 24. "We played in high school and middle school, but the teams were never very good, so going to a team where everyone was so good but everyone was also so close and it's more a family atmosphere — that you don't understand if you haven't been a part of it before."
Allie wasn't surprised at all of her sister's accomplishments and accolades. Neither was former Salisbury School coach Lynn Phillips.
"I told Ashton, 'You can do this. You could play anywhere you want to go,'" Phillips said. "Ashton was her own worst critic. I can't remember her having a bad game, but if a lot of goals were scored on her, she felt like it was her fault. I always had to tell her, 'That ball had to go through a lot of players to get to you.'"
Wheatley is still her own worst critic, but her motivation, along with her talent, is a big reason the Sea Gulls have done no worse than reach the national title game with her in the starting lineup.
With a .511 save percentage, Wheatley has allowed just 6.15 goals per game this season. She's third on the team with 27 ground balls, has eight caused turnovers and, despite her eagerness to challenge for loose balls, has not committed a foul.
Also a soccer and basketball player in high school, Wheatley has always liked to be on the move in a game. Phillips said she was terribly disappointed when she learned that she couldn't take the ball downfield and score — the rules don't permit shooting with the goalie stick.
Wheatley's versatility gives her team an extra field defender when it needs one.
"She's a firecracker of a player," Sea Gulls defender Meghan Toomey (St. Mary's) said. "She's quick. She's easily one of the fastest girls on our team. She's super athletic. She flies out of the goal to intercept that pass. She's all over the place."
This spring, Wheatley's academic requirements made lacrosse more of challenge, because as a senior nursing major, her clinicals take her to local hospitals for all-day on-the-job training twice a week.
"This year has been particularly hard," she said, "because my clinical rotations are an hour or so away and I have to miss practice twice a week or if they have a day off, that might be a day I could go. I only have two or three days of practice, so I have to work that much harder when I'm there."
She tries to fit in gym time or a run on the days she misses and does whatever she can to stay sharp. Even with just a little over a week, at most, left in her career, Wheatley still looks for little ways to hone her game as the Sea Gulls aim for the Final Four Memorial Day weekend in Gettysburg.
In three years, she has a 62-2 record in the Sea Gulls net, and coach Jim Nestor feels fortunate to have lucked into such an unusual talent.
"When you look at the success we've had, she's been such a huge factor in that success from her sophomore year to last year's great run to what we've been doing so far this year. At times, she's been spectacular," Nestor said. "Especially when she's out of the goal or if it is that one-on-one and you see that hand quickness and reaction time, she's fun to watch and you know you're looking at something special."