Story and video courtesy of the Big West Conference
Resilient. Focused. Intuitive.
Ashley Dean is a lot of things and when asked to describe her in a single word, UC Santa Barbara head coach Paul Stumpf paused. He looked down and concentrated. He stared off past the cameras and the lights and it seemed a harrowing task to arrive at just a single word.
Mature. Intelligent. Brave. He considered.
"Determined," he finally said. "I'd have to go with determined."
The UCSB senior has entered a humble 23 matches in her career but she's given the program more than Stumpf could have imagined since the first day a highlight tape featuring the forward with a powerful left foot, appeared in his inbox in 2013.
With a resume that included Yucaipa's Playmaker of the Year, Offensive Most Valuable Player, and three-time All-CIF DI honoree, it was hard for Stumpf not to take notice.
"She was banging in goals right and left," and the fact that Ashley was a natural lefty made her even more desirable.
Stumpf and his staff reached out to Ashley's club coach, Gabriel Mendoza of the Riverside FC Force, and as Stumpf declares, "It's the off of the field stuff that really gets interesting."
Before Ashley knew the feeling of pulling a jersey over her head, she knew the community fields like the back of her hand.
"I was that little kid hanging out at the soccer field, running around until the lights turned off," said the senior. After playing in grade school recreational leagues, Ashley's All-Star coach decided to field a club team, the Riverside FC Force.
Under her grandparent's roof in Grand Terrace, Calif., Ashley's mother wrestled with drugs and alcohol, oftentimes absent for days without explanation.
"[My parents] were always off doing their own thing. As a kid, I can remember my Mom telling me bye and not coming back for three days.
"My Grandma really became way more than a grandma. She was more of a mother figure to me."
At fifty dollars a month, Ashley's mom decided the club was too expensive, so at 13, the lefty found herself at practice with tears streaming down her face.
"I can't play anymore," she remembers telling coach Mendoza. "I can't afford it."
Mendoza looked at his forward and said, "Go warm up. I'll take care of it."
From that day forward, Ashley never needed to worry about finding the money to play.
Before her freshman year of high school, Ashley's father had returned from rehab and was "doing great," prompting a move from Grand Terrace to Yucaipa so that Ashley could live with her paternal grandparents and her father who had gotten himself clean and sober.
Shortly after the move, Ashley's grandfather was diagnosed with cancer, but seeing her father do so well gave everyone reason to smile.
"He had gotten his life back on track," said Ashley.
Though the move wasn't far, it meant a new school, a new set of friends, a new neighborhood.
Luckily, Ashley had soccer.
"At home, things weren't always happy. They weren't always the best, so soccer was a big outlet for me."
Despite moving, Ashley remained with the same club team, a team she'd stay with through her final year of high school. Riverside FC meant familiar faces and stability and most importantly, it meant coach Mendoza.
Mendoza became a father figure to his standout, providing guidance both on and off the pitch.
When Ashley lost her mother's mother the year she entered ninth grade, that unwavering relationship became a touchstone and his presence kept Ashley strong.
"If I ever needed anything, he would be one of the first people I could call.
Additionally, "he knew that [soccer] would help me be successful and would ultimately get me out of my situation."
Whatever it was Ashley needed, Mendoza and his wife would do what they could to help – whether it was making sure rides were in order, bringing water at halftime, discussing collegiate soccer – Ashley's guardian angel came dressed in cleats.
"[Her] grandma would ask me if it was worth it," remembers Mendoza. "And I would ensure her that indeed. This sport can take you somewhere, this sport can give you something back."
As the first from her family to attend a university, "Gabe" provided vital advice throughout high school.
"He made sure I was on top of school. He was the first person who told me that I could play college soccer."
While always dedicated on the field, the sport suddenly gave Ashley a ticket out – the game was going to give her a different kind of life.
Ashley's grandmother was in the kitchen when the phone rang. The athlete couldn't make out what was said on the other line, but suddenly a scream pierced through the silence.
Ashley remembers the blood-curdling sound that suddenly filled the room. The kind of sound that imprints itself in your memory, and changes the way things once were.
The person on the other line said the accident was fatal. Her grandmother lost one of her three sons that day in a motorcycle crash on his way home from work on October 8, 2011. Ashley's Uncle Tommy was 42 when he tragically passed.
"My Dad from then on, you could tell he started picking back up his addiction again. From that point that I lost my uncle, things in my house went downhill. I started seeing my Dad less and less. My Grandpa was sick. My Grandma was trying to hold herself together. Everything was just, too much."
One year and a week later, Ashley's grandfather lost his battle with cancer.
"After that, I barely saw my Dad."
From then on, it was Ashley, her grandmother and her little sister.
Ashley's days were full with school, track practice and club soccer and her days at home were few and far between. The tension that builds when a high school senior starts getting ready to leave home, was exacerbated with the losses she had already endured. Ashley remembers, "It was just too much."
Verbally committed to a university closer to home, Ashley wanted to reevaluate herdecision. She wanted to start anew.
So the honor roll student started exploring her options once again.
UC Santa Barbara, meet Ashley Dean.
The First Tear
In the blink of an eye, it seemed as it it had all slipped through her fingers – as if her ticket to a different life had vanished.
It was May of her senior year, just a month before graduation and Ashley found herself hearing the words no athlete wants to hear:
"You've torn your ACL."
Ashley saw everything vanish.
"I thought, I just ruined my future."
Ashley had earned her ticket, she would head up the California coast in the fall.
But the injury threatened to take all of that away.
"It was devastating.
"Finally, I get to go to college and have a fresh start, then I go in with a torn ACL."
After talking with coach Stumpf Ashley learned that she still had a spot on the team and she had never been more excited to call herself a Gaucho.
UC Santa Barbara
With a career in the FBI in mind originally, Ashley excelled in her studies in the classroom. On the field, Ashley was tested to become a different kind of teammate as she redshirt the 2013 season.
After a hard road to recovery, things were looking up.
"She's been rehabbing for hours a week. When she has been healthy, she's been training with us, during the different times a year, up to 20 hours a week," said Stumpf. "Carrying a full classroom load to the point where she's going to graduate in four years, and by the way, she's had a part-time job working at a variety of supermarkets and grocery stores along the way."
Ashley's always had a vision and she's proven time and time again that she'll do whatever it takes to see it through.
Said Stumpf, "From that sense alone, she's a pretty impressive young woman."
It was dead week between winter and spring quarter, right before classes would recess for the spring holiday when Ashley was in the middle of a workout in the weightroom.
On a break to get water, she checked her phone to see a missed call from her father.
"I don't talk to Dad," she remembers thinking. "Why is he calling?"
She brushed it off and decided to call back later, but the next time she checked he had left a voicemail which sent a pang of uneasiness through Ashley's spine.
Knowing something wasn't right, Ashley called back.
"Grandma's in the hospital," he said. "It's pretty serious, you might need to come home."
Hospitalized for heart failure, Ashley made it home as quickly as possible and was by her grandmother's side just a couple hours after she spoke with her father.
"She was such an important part of my life," shared Ashley.
"She always told me, 'I'm not going anywhere.' She was my rock."
A few hours after Ashley arrived, the family made the impossible decision to let her grandmother go, and Laura Dean passed away on March 18, 2015.
"It was very difficult," remembers Mendoza. "She wanted to give up. Quit soccer. But somehow, it actually helped her to play."
"I always wanted to show her that all of the things she did for me, paid off.
"Everything I do, I keep her in mind."
After the passing of her grandmother, Ashley threw herself into the sport she loved.
"It was an outlet. It was something that I loved to do and it was a way to push everything else aside.
I completely threw my life into getting stronger, better, faster. Everything was about soccer. I felt like it was the one thing going right."
Then later that offseason in a spring game before her junior year, Ashley, went down with an injury to her knee.
For the second time in her career, Ashley heard the words no athlete wants to hear:
"You've torn your ACL."
"I remember telling my trainer who was giving me the news, 'No I didn't.'"
Said Stumpf, "There was a moment in my office where the results from the MRI came in, and after a few minutes of crying the face kind of changed and she said, 'I'm going to be back.'"
Though it all seemed like a bad dream, or a cruel trick being played twice, this time was different. This time, Ashley would be alone.
"I learned that one, soccer is not everything and two, that life is going to throw you curveballs and it's going to throw things at you that you have to deal with but you have to rise above it. You can't quit. I think 2015 showed me you have to keep going no matter what happens. You have to keep going.
I'm by myself. When I graduate, I'm by myself. I think everything that's happened has been preparing me for that. Preparing me to live on my own and survive on my own."
Ashley had surgery in August of 2015 and wrestled with the decision to rehab her knee or to call it a career.
"If it were me, I'm not so sure I could have done it," said Stumpf. "There's a fear. God forbid it happens a third time, and it could happen at any time."
"The reality is that stuff happens to everyone, I'm not the only person who's ever torn their ACL, I'm not the only person who's ever lost someone, it's not really about that," said Ashley wise beyond her years. "It's about how you come through the other side of it. Once I realized that after surgery and stopped feeling sorry for myself, and told myself, 'This is what happened what can I do about it.'"
In her first game back, Ashley scored her first collegiate goal.
"I could not let my story, and all of this hard work, end on an injury. I just had to try."
The lefty considers that first goal a reward – a reward for all of the time, energy and effort dedicated to getting back out on the field.
When asked where that goal ranks in the top moments of her career, the forward smiled, and said, "It's number two."
Number one would come earlier this season when her father drove out from North Carolina to watch her play at Texas-San Antonio.
"I had never seen my parents go out of their way like."
Ashley notched two assists that day as the Gauchos recorded a 4-1 win over the Roadrunners.
Beaming, Ashley describes what it was like to have her father in the stands and to see him doing so well.
If there's one thing Ashley knows that would make her grandmother proud, it's the relationship she's developed with her father.
Wiping a tear from her cheek Ashley said, "If she could only see him now."
"I'm so proud of him, he's overcome a lot. I always knew that he could do it."
"Because of all of the things she's had to overcome," said Stumpf, "there's only one adjective that would describe someone that's come back from these things over and over and over again.
"A lot of words come to mind when I think of Ashley, but she has had to be determined to get back to where she is today."
On the field, coach Stumpf claims she's the most effective player for the Gauchos, logging more goals and more assists per minute than anyone.
But Ashley's become an irreplaceable part of the team in a bigger way.
"I think it's the off the field stuff, it's the ability for us to tell her story and tell the other young ladies when they think they're having a bad day, they have no idea what a bad day really looks like."
Said Ashley, "I just think about my grandparents and all they sacrificed for me to be where I am now. That propels me forward to keep on moving and succeed."
When asked if she'd describe herself as "fearless," Ashley responded, "I'm afraid of so many things, but then again those things have already happened to me. I would say that I'm determined rather than fearless.
"Everything's already happened, so, bring it on."