With a 5-12 record as of Jan. 21 and a season full of heartbreaking losses, perhaps no player has played a more crucial role in keeping the Badgers fighting for every win than Ashley Thomas.
A forward now in her final year suiting up for the Wisconsin women’s basketball team, Thomas’ voice can often be heard echoing through the Kohl Center during practice and booming into the bleachers during games. While rather reserved off the court, the Glenview, Ill., native is well known for her energy and enthusiasm on the hardwood.
“She’s definitely outspoken on the court,” Kelsey said. “She talks probably the absolute best of anybody we have. … She’s communicating out there and helping people get to the right spot. She’s by far our most aggressive player, and that’s all because she’s conscientious of what she’s doing out there and trying to help others.”
A natural post player at 6-foot-2, Thomas – along with fellow forwards Anya Covington and Cassie Rochel – was part of the group attempting to fill the void of last year’s dominating inside duo of Lin Zastrow and Tara Steinbauer. As seniors in the 2010-11 season, Zastrow and Steinbauer both ranked among the team’s top three scorers.
Never averaging more than 10.5 minutes per game in her first three years in Madison, Thomas now averages close to 30 minutes a night. A solid scorer in her first year as a starter, the senior posts six points per contest but proved she was a true offensive threat in a career high 14-point, seven-rebound performance against Saint Louis.
“She’s really taken on that responsibility of being a vocal leader, and it’s definitely helped us out a lot,” guard Jade Davis, also a senior, said. “Especially losing three starters last year, we needed someone to really step into that role and take responsibility for that, and she’s done a great job of it.”
But it’s not just Thomas’ tireless communication on the court that has earned her a starting spot. Seeing most of her floor time due to her strong defensive presence, she has now stepped in as one of the Badgers’ more skilled post players.
The numbers are not eye-popping, but teammates note that her ability to find the bottom of the net has improved dramatically since arriving in Madison as a freshman.
“In the past, I knew what my role was on offense: … more or less a screener, a passer, just more of a low player,” Thomas said. “The main area I’ve gotten better at is being able to score on the block and being a scoring presence. Obviously, I’m not as consistent as I wish I could be.”
Though best known for making her voice heard on the court, Thomas has also become a model for success away from the Kohl Center’s hardwood. An active member of the faith-based group Athletes in Action and a recipient of the 2009-10 Big Ten Sportsmanship award, Thomas has a sense of responsibility and purpose that spreads to her teammates.
For Kelsey, the senior tri-captain is the player every coach hopes to have on their team – one who can keep the team together and motivated through the tough losing streaks and lengthy practices.
“It’s easy to coach kids like her because you know what they are going to bring to the table 99 percent of the time,” Kelsey said. ” … She’s confident in herself as far as basketball goes, and I know every coach would want someone that they don’t have to poke and prod to be ready to go and beg to play hard and be aggressive. That’s just her nature.”
Graduating this spring, Thomas says she doesn’t have a detailed plan for the future but is committed to going to seminary and getting involved in youth ministry. It’s a career that seems to suit her perfectly when considering the part she plays for the Badgers.
As the emotional and vocal leader of Wisconsin all season, she sees communication as a major thing she can provide every day, whether in practice or the heat of a game. The floaters may not always drop and the ball may not always bounce off the glass to collect rebounds, but teammates can help compensate for that.
Her real talent is not one that can be substituted easily – directing people to their spot on the floor and lighting players up in huddles is what her teammates and coaches have come to expect from the wise veteran.
“It’s always been something that’s easy for me to do – I know I can talk, and if I’m talking I know that I’m going to help myself be doing the right things because I’m saying it,” Thomas said.