Winthrop coach Melissa Heinz saw the soccer skills needed to perform at the college level each time she traveled to Lawrenceville, Ga., to recruit Ashley Bader.
But that's not what sold her on the talented defender. What really impressed the fifth-year women's soccer coach was Bader's never-step-back attitude and work ethic.
She knew from the start that Bader was the type player who could deal with all the frustrations that come during the transition from high school to college.
Alhough frustrated at times, the 5-foot-4 Bader has stayed the course, going from a spot starter to a regular and becoming a leader on and off the field for the Lady Eagles, who are in North Charleston today for the first round of the Big South Conference tournament.
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Things didn't go as she hoped in the early years, but she never stopped working.
"You want to come in as a freshman and compete for a starting spot," Bader, an MVP at Collins Hill High School, said. "But you realize that you're probably not going to get that spot, but that you'd fill in for people who need a break. I took that as my role and I accepted it."
Bader played in all 18 games as a freshman, started twice and scored a goal. She started just three of 18 games the following season and had no goals or assists.
"My sophomore year was a little frustrating because you feel like it's your time to step up and challenge for a starting spot, but I wasn't quite getting it done," she said.
Those five starts in her first two years would turn out to be all she'd get until this season.
"I know it was hard on her," Heinz said. "But I never knew how hard it was because she never complained. I've had kids in the same situation quit, but Ashley never thought about that."
Bader re-committed herself following last year's loss to UNC Asheville in the tournament semifinals.
"I definitely pushed myself more than any other time getting ready for my senior year," Bader, a mass communication major, said.
The hard work didn't go unnoticed by Heinz when preseason practice rolled around.
"She elevated her fitness and her technique," Heinz said. "Ashley came back fitter, stronger, smarter about the game and more driven."
Those efforts were rewarded when Bader was named one of the team captains along with Michelle Butler and Dimi Poulos.
This year, Bader has started 12 of 17 games and has converted two goals, one that proved to be the game-winner against Liberty.
Individually, Bader has reached most of her goals, but 2007 has been maybe the most frustrating for her and her teammates. The Lady Eagles returned a veteran team from a year ago when they posted a school-record 13 wins and were the regular-season champions.
But inconsistency has plagued the team since all season. The Lady Eagles, 6-7-4 and 4-3 in the BSC, have yet to perform like the No. 2 pick in the preseason BSC poll.
The disappointing regular season ended with a lackluster and disheartening performance at home against High Point.
That 2-1 loss last week ended any hopes of a No. 2 seed in the Big South tournament and dropped them to the No. 4 seed. It also spoiled Senior Day for Bader and five teammates.
Bader knew heading to Monday's pre-sunrise practice that there was a lot of work to do in a short amount of time. The main objective was wipe away the bitter taste of the worst performance of the year and get fired up for the tournament that kicks off this morning with an 11:30 a.m. match against No. 5 Liberty, the preseason No. 1 pick.
Bader decided on the short ride from campus that she would do what she's done ever since she arrived in Rock Hill in 2004 -- work hard and lead by example.
"It was one of the best practices we've had all year," Bader said. "The communication and intensity was there. I feel like we're going to bounce back and have a good tournament."
Heinz, who was visibly shaken by her team's play against the Lady Panthers, was also encouraged by what she observed in practice.
"I'm still confident," she said. "I want to see us perform like I know we can because we have the talent."
Big South women's soccer tournament
At North Charleston
Game 1 -- No. 4 Winthrop (6-7-4, 4-3 BSC) vs. No. 5 Liberty 6-11, 3-4), 11:30 a.m.
Game 2 -- No. 1 Coastal Carolina (13-5-1, 6-1) vs. No. 8 VMI (5-12, 1-6), 2 p.m.
Game 3 -- No. 3 High Point (9-7-2, 5-2) vs. No. 6 Radford (9-9, 3-4), 4:30 p.m.
Game 4 -- No. 2 Charleston Southern (12-6, 5-2) vs. No. 7 UNC Asheville (3-13, 1-6), 7 p.m.
Game 5 -- Game 1 winner vs. Game 2 winner, 4:30 p.m.
Game 6 -- Game 3 winner vs. Game 4 winner, 7 p.m.
Game 7 -- Game 5 winner vs. Game 6 winner, 2 p.m.