Ice and Advil became necessities for Ashley Caldwell after she sustained a left foot injury halfway through her senior field hockey season.
Her diagnosis — tibialis tendinitis, a severe inflammation of a tendon from the back of the leg to the foot — left her with crucial pain at times. But, it wasn't enough to hold her back from competing alongside her Liberty teammates.
"I just kept telling myself, 'You can rest it after, this is your only chance, you're a senior,'" Caldwell said. "It's the last chance I'm going to get and at certain points it did get unbearable and I had to come off, but I really tried to push through it as much as I could."
Push through it she did.
Caldwell concluded her senior season with five goals and a county-best 20 assists, earning her Times Field Hockey Player of the Year honors. She was a senior captain who helped lead the Lions to the Class 1A state championship — their first state title since 1982 — with a 2-0 victory over Queen Anne's at Washington College on Nov. 12.
Looking back at the season's beginning, Caldwell said she knew the team had potential. The Lions were nearly perfect this year and suffered just two losses — one, a 1-0 decision at the hands of eventual county champion Westminster, a matchup that took a slight toll on the Lions.
"We all got really down on it," Caldwell said. "We thought we weren't that great and I think our coach really helped us realize that we were playing a 3A school and would be playing 1A schools in the playoffs. They won states so many times before, and our coach really helped us get back together."
Sixth-year coach Brenda Strohmer guided her girls on their road to states, but refrained from handing down extra sprints as punishment after the team thought they had a poor game performance. She didn't have to, because the Lions initiated extra work themselves. And it started with the team's leaders.
"It was always the captains pushing that on our team and for the other players, I want to say that they did a great job for not yelling as us when we made them do sprints," Caldwell said. "They did a great job listening to what we had to say and the captains are the ones who push us to work harder."
Liberty rode a seven-game winning streak into the state final and their shutout victory over Queen Anne's was the second loss — and lone shutout loss — for the 1A runners-up all season. Caldwell notched an assist in the championship victory.
She had an assist in the Lions' Class 2A West final overtime victory against Francis Scott Key, then scored in their state semifinal win over Patuxent to get to Washington College.
Despite playing through her injury, Caldwell provided crucial feeds for her teammates. The county's assists leader said it's a role she felt most comfortable in, and Strohmer helped her identify and keep that mindset.
It's now permanently drilled in her brain.
"I had players [at South Carroll] like Katie DeFilippo, who was always upset she didn't score goals, and Ashley started out that way," said Strohmer, who coached at SC for five years with one at Century before coming to Liberty. "I told her her job wasn't to score goals, it was to cross it and have them finish it. Cross the ball and get the assist, and she did it very well. I wish we could have capitalized more on what she did."
Call it a natural instinct — field hockey came easily for Caldwell. She quickly developed a higher admiration for the sport thanks to Nate Franks, her former club field hockey coach. Caldwell said Franks pushed her to consider playing field hockey in college, and starting next fall she will.
She verbally committed to play at Queen's University of Charlotte last spring, and signed her national letter of intent a few weeks ago.
"With Ashley, Hannah [Miller] and Abbie [Busch], I'll miss that leadership in the field hockey sense, and that drive," Strohmer said. "That goes for all of the captains because it isn't just one; it's all three of them. I'll miss her stick skills, no one could touch her. That drive, that passion, that knowledge — the three of them were such a complete unit and I hope I can find that again.
"It took a lot of grooming to get them there, but it's a feeling I wish every coach could experience."
Caldwell started physical therapy for her foot Tuesday and will continue through her collegiate career. The Lions are planning a Christmas party for the coming weeks and despite the season's end, the girls still spend every day together.
"Every year, we've had a super close team," Caldwell said. "This year in particular, and I want them to keep working hard. I think they have so much talent and I want to see them keep making history."