by Benny Benton
WILSON, N.C. – Barton College held its eighth annual Pup’s Steakhouse Celebration of Girls and Women in Sports Day on campus Thursday, with five speakers representing girls and women from middle school through graduate school sharing how their lives have been impacted through sports.
The featured guests included Katie Wilkinson, a former volleyball player at Wilson Christian Academy and Barton now in graduate school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; Rachel Krueger, a current member of the Barton women’s soccer team and president of the school’s Student Government Association; Ashley Hartsfield, a sophomore at Wilson Christian who plays basketball, soccer and volleyball; Hannah Mosley, an eighth-grader at Elm City Middle School who competes in basketball, cross country, soccer and volleyball; and Riley Bane, a current member of the Barton women’s volleyball team.
As the daughter of former Barton baseball coach and current athletic director Todd Wilkinson, Katie Wilkinson noted that she has literally been around sports all her life. “My mom said she had my playpen in the press box while dad was coaching,” Wilkinson said with a smile.
Wilkinson said sports began to have a serious impact on her personally around the ninth or tenth grade when she had to balance daily volleyball practice with classes, homework and travel for games. “That was a quick time management lesson for me that I had to learn, and I’m so lucky that I learned it when I did.”
That preparation has paid dividends as Wilkinson now balances work at both television station ABC 11 and UNC’s athletic department with studies as a graduate student in UNC’s highly regarded journalism program.
“My fellow grad students didn’t know how I did that,” Wilkinson said. “I’m the only one in my program who had a job the entire four semesters. As cliché as it sounds, time management is very important, and I attribute my participation in sports to teaching me that.”
She also shared with the group a different take on perseverance, and noted its importance as she and her graduate school classmates prepare for full-time careers.
“When you think perseverance, often you think about an injury that has set you back and you have to work through it,” she said. “But perseverance to me is maybe being on the bench, not getting that starting role that one want. Figuring out how to work hard … and seeing what the coach needs from you to continue pushing forward and come out stronger.
“That works for me in school, too, and it’s so important because we’re all striving to get a job. We all have this dream job in mind. But sometimes reality sets in, and we may not get that dream job right out of college. I had a dream of being a sideline reporter, and I knew that was probably not going to happen right after college. I was going to have to work my way there. … Perseverance is just taking something that didn’t happen as you had planned and finding a way around it, still working hard and pushing forward.”
Krueger also talked about the perseverance she needed to overcome a knee injury that interrupted her Barton career, and noted how she was inspired to push through it by a young woman from Afghanistan.
“It was the summer of my freshman year of high school when I met Shamila (Kohestani). She was the captain of the Afghanistan women’s national soccer team. She told us that as she was growing up, she wanted to play soccer, but she was not given that opportunity. There was constant fear in her life, but when the U.S. troops were there, she knew she could reach out to them. She remembered the first time the tanks lined up around the soccer field to give the girls a chance to play. At the time, little did I know how much that story would impact me.”
A leader on a championship team at White Oak High School and a high school all-star, Krueger was seldom off the field during her prep career or first two years at Barton, where she started all 36 games as a freshman and sophomore. However, the knee injury wiped out her third year with the Lady Bulldogs, and dealing with the injury was challenging until she was touched again by Kohestani.
“During the most difficult part of my comeback from knee surgery, I read an interview from Shamila,” Krueger said. “She was asked, ‘Every day we wake up to the new wave of negative news, and as an Afghan woman, we face a wide range of obstacles in our lives. What keeps you going?’ Her answer was ‘What inspires me is the power of women and girls. Afghan women are brave and hard-working, and we want to contribute to our communities. Unfortunately, Afghanistan is still one of the most challenging places for women. Many still lack basic human rights, like the right to get an education, be free or participate in sports. Every day, most families don’t support their daughters’ ambitions. Despite all obstacles, Afghan women are making history on a daily basis.’
“At that moment, I felt very selfish. I had all the support from my family and from Barton College, and I still felt like was being held back. There were women in Afghanistan who did not have the support of their own family and friends to play a sport that they loved, and that did not stop them. They were determined to make history, not to become famous and gain glory, but simply to play the sport that Barton College allowed me to play. Barton gave me this opportunity and allowed me to become who I am today.”
Hartsfield pointed out three important life lessons gained from her time playing three sports at Wilson Christian. First and foremost was the value of preparation.
“Practice has a huge impact on the way you perform, whether it’s in a game or life,” Hartsfield said. “In order to do something well, you have to practice efficiently, often and effectively. Sports preparation is about critiquing your skill and getting ready to play upcoming games. In life, our youth is when we need to prepare for adulthood. Make good habits young, and you’ll be prepared for the challenges life will bring you. A few good habits include learning not to procrastinate, how to be proactive and not reactive, and being self-disciplined. Lack of preparation creates stress and missed opportunities.”
Her second lesson was the importance of keeping a positive attitude. “Being in a room full of athletes, I know most of you won’t believe this, but I have played in a game where the referee made a few bad calls,” she joked.
“Life will give you some bad calls as well. You must keep a positive attitude, only control what you can, and let go of the rest,” Hartsfield said. “Be positive, and don’t let bad calls get you down.”
Finally, she noted that in both sports and life, players should know and embrace their positions.
“After taking one look at my five foot, three inch tall parents, I knew my dream of playing center in the WNBA was not a reality,” she said to an outburst of laughter. “As all of you know, each person on a sports team is assigned to different positions. In order to have a successful team, you must have committed players who know their role and play their position effectively. When this is the case, success is not given, but rewarded.”
Mosley quoted Alex Morgan, one of the world’s leading women’s soccer players, who said that “everyone has a talent, but it’s what you do with that talent that makes the difference.”
The eighth-grader raised some thought-provoking questions about talent.
“Is it something they are born with?” she asked. “Who decides that it’s their talent – the person, their peers, their parents, their coaches?”
She pondered what her own, however brief, lifespan would have been like without “any athletic talent, parents who pushed me in the right direction – not just in sports but in school as well – and the love I have for the game.”
Hartsfield was grateful to the coaching she received, beginning in soccer at age 3, and the guidance of her parents. She closed her speech by drawing back to Morgan, who she said reminded her “age doesn’t matter, ability is not always gets you to the next point, and your heart must be in the game.”
The final speaker was Bane, who used the analogy of a five-set volleyball match to point out “two struggles and three accomplishments” that have added up to a winning life for the Wilson native.
One of earliest struggles, she said, was failing a sixth-grade composition class, which cost her the opportunity to play basketball that season in middle school.
“Looking back now, I’m really bad at basketball, so it might have been a blessing in disguise,” Bane said with a laugh. “But I had to learn to overcome at a very early age some situations I didn’t think I’d be able to. Sports was the only thing I had confidence in about myself when I was that young, so when I was unable to play, I lost a lot of self-confidence. With the help and support of my parents, my coaches, my family members and myself, I overcame it and got to play softball that spring.”
The first of her three accomplishments was becoming both a student-athlete and a member of the Honors Program at Barton. Her second struggle was a broken foot that forced her to redshirt and miss what would have been her sophomore season on the Barton women’s volleyball team.
“I thought at the time this might be the end of my career,” Bane said. “I didn’t know if I could come back and become the same athlete that I was before the injury. But after sitting on the bench with my crutches right next to me, watching my teammates grow, I knew inside me that I could become a different leader than I was as a freshman. I could become a vocal leader and not just a leader by example.”
Rosalie Ellis Bardin, left, receives the Carole McKeel Award for her contributions to the participation of girls and women in sports from the award's namesake, Carole McKeel | Photo by Keith Tew
That understanding led to accomplishments four and five – becoming an integral part of back-to-back conference championships for the Lady Bulldogs. Bane was named to the All-Tournament Team for the 2016 championship and Most Outstanding Player for the 2017 championship.
“Not many other student-athletes can say they are back-to-back champions, and I’m proud to say that I am for Barton,” Bane said. “Being an athlete at Barton has given the opportunity to learn skills as a freshman that I would had to delay at other institutions. Barton has given me a home where I am choosing to stay for five years, because I know it can teach me more in that last year than I could have gained in four years at any other institution.”
During the event, the Carole McKeel Award was presented to Rosalie Ellis Bardin for her many contributions to the participation of girls and women in sports over more than four decades. Bardin is a 1973 graduate of Atlantic Christian College (now Barton) and a member of the Barton Athletic Hall of Fame. She served as athletic director at Southern Nash Senior High School, and also coached basketball, softball, track and field, and volleyball.
“I’d like to thank everyone at Barton College for honoring me with this award, understanding and appreciating all the inspirational words from our guest speakers about how women’s sports and being actively involved have given them so much,” Bardin said. “Sports and participation have enabled them to follow their dreams, achieve their goals, and enhance their daily lives. I can and do relate with these young ladies.
“So here is just a snapshot of what being able to participate in women’s sports has meant for me. Being actively involved in sports changed my life. Playing women’s sports developed my confidence, passion and commitment in being part of a team. I have experienced many challenges and tough losses that required incredible sacrifices. Yet, I persevered, became resilient, and managed my time. Women’s sports, playing as well as coaching student-athletes, afforded me the opportunity to develop wonderful leadership skills and to become a better person”