NEWELL - Ashley Lussman might not be the most gifted natural athlete Newell-Fonda High has produced over the past few years, but she might be one of the pluckiest.
A senior who lives in Fonda, Lussman has persevered through two years of benchwarming in both basketball and volleyball. If there were a term that defines the past three sports years for this outgoing senior, it might be "delayed gratification."
"Ashley has always loved sports," said her mother Jeannie. "She's assertive and driven, so it wasn't always been easy for her during her sophomore and junior years. But one thing about Ashley - she isn't a quitter."
This fall season, Lussman finally got the chance to be a varsity starter. She's played nearly every point thus for for the 2005 Mustang volleyball team.
She's shined in the back row , according to Mustang coach Craig Davis. Lussman typically reaches double figures in digs; in last week's five-game loss to Laurens-Marathon, for instance, she had 36.
"She's not afraid to hit the floor after diving for a ball," Davis said. "And Ashley plays every point like it's her last. That's not only a great example for the rest of the players on the team, but also for the younger girls in the stands who want play volleyball when they get older."
In any given match, Ashley will have at least one fairly violent collision with the gym floor before the fifth or sixth point.
"That's what I love most about volleyball," Ashley said Wednesday afternoon. "Sometimes, it's the team with the most heart that wins."
Davis added that as of Wednesday, Ashley has 180 digs, and has a chance to surpass Andrea Larsen's team-leading 245 digs last year.
"Somehow, on a lot of points, she finds a way to keep the ball alive," he said.
Nevertheless, Ashley was frustrated at the beginning of her junior season in volleyball. Faced with the prospect of warming the bench for another year, Davis said she was at a crossroads.
"I think there was a time there for a while when she didn't know if she wanted to stick it out." Davis said. "She wasn't paying attention to the little things like she should have, and she wasn't as mentally focused as she needed to be."
Davis said a turning point came last fall when seniors Destiny Sievers and Larsen had a talk with Ashley.
"They sort of took Ashley under their wing, and from then on, she just kept improving," he said.
Although Ashley still didn't see a lot of playing time last fall, she made the varsity and was voted the team's 'Most Improved Player' by her teammates.
"She stayed with it and worked things out," Davis said. "Now this year, Ashley is the emotional focus of our team and a team leader. It's really worked out well for her."
Davis said that one of Ashley's weaknesses last season was serving. This year's she's been an asset at the line, having missed just four serves in 153 attempts.
"She was able to turn a weakness into as strength," Davis said. "That's pretty typical of the way Ashley turned it around from early last fall."
Ashley admits she was a bit frustrated at the beginning of last volleyball season, but says her natural tendency is to project a positive attitude. That positivity might have been what pulled her through.
"I just think it's important to stay positive," she said. "People like to see that. And I think it's especially important in sports; if you stay positive, sometimes that rubs off on your teammates.
"There have been times where I thought I should have been playing rather than someone else, but if things don't work out right away, you've just got to stick it out and give it your best shot.
"Eventually," she said, "you'll get your turn."
This winter, Ashley hopes to see playing time on the Newell-Fonda basketball team that has reached the region finals two years in a row.
Mustang girls basketball coach Dick Jungers isn't guaranteeing anyone playing time at this point. But he has noticed how Ashley has been a success story in volleyball.
"She stuck it out and good things happened," Jungers said. "Ashley has always given everything she's had during the basketball season, and I think she gets the most out of her ability."
In the spring, Ashley has been one of the top middle distance runners for the Mustangs. It may be no coincidence that she runs the 800 meters and a leg on the 4x800 team. In the 800, it's two times around the track, and often those races come down to who has the most left in the last 200 meters.
"That's what I like about the 800," Ashley said. "Toward the end of the race, it comes down to who has the most guts."
This week, Ashley has been involved in a competition of a different sort. She was picked by her fellow students as a candidate for Homecoming Queen.
"It was just nice to be nominated," Ashley said Wednesday. "It really doesn't matter who wins; if I win, it'll be nice. But if one of my friends wins, I'll be just as happy for her."
Wednesday afternoon, the Mustangs had their annual 'Powder Puff' football game, pitting the seniors and juniors against the sophomores and freshman.
"I scored three touchdowns and we won," Ashley said with a chuckle. "It's been a great senior year so far. But it's funny; you work just as hard in your earlier years in high school, and then all of a sudden, it comes together.
"I guess it just goes to show that if you stay positive and stick with things, it's eventually work out."