May 23, 2013
By Jerry Hill
Baylor Bear Insider
Amherst, N.Y., a suburb of Buffalo with a population of 122,366, is actually only slightly larger than Waco, Texas.
But growing up in the shadows of New York City, Ashley Fields was used to the bright lights and a much faster pace. How could a girl from New York make it at Baylor and in the comparatively slower-than-molasses pace of Central Texas?
"When I first came here, I didn't think I would like it as much as I did," said Fields, a redshirt freshman who will compete in four events at the NCAA West Preliminary Rounds that begin Thursday in Austin, Texas. "I thought I would be homesick and want to go home to my parents. But actually, I don't really want to go home . . . ever. I want to stay here. Like this summer, I'm probably not going to go home. I actually like it a lot."
That comfort level has translated to the track, where the sleek 5-foot-9 sprinter is ranked fifth in the 200 meters (22.98) and 25th in the 100 (11.5) going into the NCAA West meet and is running on both the 4x100 and 4x400 relays.
"We really did (expect this)," said Baylor head coach Todd Harbour. "Last year, she had some injuries, so we just made the call to redshirt her the whole way through. And that gave her a chance to mature and grow up a little bit; get in the weight room and get a little stronger. So, we did expect this. But for a freshman to come out and do this is outstanding."
Fields dominated the track scene in New York, winning four consecutive section championships in the 200 meters and three New York State Federation titles. She also won the 200 meters at the USATF Junior Olympics in 2010 and had personal bests of 11.76 in the 100 and 23.66 in the 200 and a school-record time of 57.42 in the 400.
So it wasn't a surprise when Baylor sprint coach Michael Ford asked his former club coach about potential recruits in New York that Fields' name was the first out of his mouth.
"When he said there was a girl from Amherst, I was like, `Amherst? Really?''' said Ford, a former All-American at Baylor who grew up in Rochester, N.Y. "But I did some research on her . . . and I was like, `Man, she looks the part. Let me see if I can grab her.'''
The first thing that catches your eye is a smooth, upright stride that actually reminds you of former Baylor All-American and Olympic gold medalist Michael Johnson.
"She's probably one of the smoothest runners I've ever coached," Ford said. "I fell in love with her running the more I see her run in practice and meets. She's really strong right now, I'm just trying to get her faster, especially in the 100. And if she drops in the 100, the 200 will come along better, too."
Away from home for the first time, her career at Baylor got off to a shaky start when she was injured in November 2011 and had to have minor knee surgery the following January.
"At first, I was really disappointed," she said. "But then I took a step back and realized that everything happens for a reason and God has a plan for me. He was like, `You're not ready.' Actually, I'm glad I got a little bit of a break now rather than at the end of my college career."
Although she actually came in a year later, Fields is part of a talented freshman class that includes jumpers Felix Obi and Brianna Richardson and half-miler Olicia Williams, who are all ranked in the top 12 in the NCAA West in their respective events.
"We've got some very talented freshmen on the team, both sides," Harbour said. "So, we're looking forward to the future, for sure."
Of course, the present doesn't look too bad, either. The top 12 in each event advance to the NCAA Finals June 5-8 in Eugene, Ore., and Baylor is ranked in the top 12 in nine individual events and three of the four relays.
"We want to get as many people out as we can and try to get back into that top 20 with both groups this year, and we feel like it's very doable," Harbour said. "With the loss of (All-Americans Tiffani McReynolds and Everett Walker), that definitely hurts us at a national level to lose two high-quality performers like that. But I feel like we can get enough out where we have a shot at nationals to be in that top 20. That's what we're always striving for."
Fields is taking it one step at a time. She just wants to get through the first round in both the 100 and 200 and see where that takes her.
"Since the 100 is not one of my best events, I'm just going to try to see if I can PR (set a new personal record) again; and hopefully that gets me to nationals," said Fields, who was third in the 200 and 4x100 relay and fourth in the 100 at the Big 12 Championships. "And if it doesn't, I won't be disappointed. Then in the 200, my goal is definitely to PR and get to nationals in that."
Following in the gold-plated footsteps of Johnson, Fields' future could actually be in the 200-400 double. She has yet to run the open quarter at Baylor, but is a staple on the 4x400 relay that is ranked seventh in the West with a time of 3:32.12 that the team ran at the Texas Relays on this same Mike A. Myers track last month.
"Honestly, I put her in the same category - and this probably puts more pressure on her - as a Tiffany Townsend," said Ford, comparing Fields with the former Baylor sprinter that earned more All-American honors than any athlete in program history. "I think the sky's the limit for her in the 200. I think she could be a 22-low girl, if she stays healthy and matures mentally and physically. And I also think she could run a 52 open quarter. If the 100 doesn't pan out, maybe (she will run) more 200-400. We talked about that when we were recruiting her, but right now I'm happy with how her progress is going in the 100 and 200."
Possibly putting even more pressure on her, Ford said Fields' running style does resemble Johnson's.
"She's an upright runner, and she's long and covers a lot of ground. I never thought about that, but . . ."