Before Ashton Needham took a step on this planet, she was on a softball field.
The Tipton-Rosemark Academy Softball standout recently inked a national letter of intent on the TRA campus to ensure she’ll continue her playing days next year at Northwest Mississippi.
But her journey to a college scholarship started with the passion for the game by her mother Amber. A standout at Munford under legendary Head Coach Glenn Goulder, Amber moved into coaching after her playing days were over.
In her 23 years of coaching, Amber has guided her daughter for the last 14 years. Amber said it has been a long road from the days she coached with Ashton in her stomach to her daughter signing with the Lady Rangers.
“I’m excited for her,” she said. “It’s a great accomplishment to be recognized at this level. And I wish her all the luck. It’s been a lot of hard work. And sometimes I think we fight more than we actually coach as mom.
“But it’s been a pleasure and a wonderful ride watching her grow up from the age of 2 and 3 when she was my bat girl,” Amber continued. “Then when she was with the Sweeties playing in the dirt to now. It’s been wonderful watching her progress.”
Living in Burlison, Ashton sharpened her skills playing for Atoka Dixie as a child and now for the Mississippi Glory traveling squad.
And some of Ashton’s most productive softball came as a Lady Rebel. In 2011 Ashton and her mother joined the TRA program with then new Head Coach Joe Layton.
“When I took the job as head coach several years ago and I was looking for that assistant coach, I saw her interaction with the middle schools,” Layton recalled of Amber. “I knew what type of intensity and things she was going to bring to the program. She did an excellent job. And a tremendous amount of the success the program has had in recent years is a direct reflection on what Amber has brought and she brought her kid too. That helped out a lot too.”
Over the next three years the Lady Rebels reached Sub-State each season with two trips to the Division II-A State Tournament. And in 2011 the Lady Rebels were the best winning the championship. From that team, TRA players Roxanna Kimes, Mady Kate Gantt, Hannah Durham and Julanne McCommon signed to play softball at the next level.
Layton said the talent in all those players was easy to see. And he could tell Needham was also on that level even when she was in TRA Middle.
“There’s no doubt she’s going to do well at the next level,” Layton said. “From the time that she stepped on the field for us it was very evident that she was amazing. She’s been a big contributor every year from that State run to Sub-State every year.”
Ashton felt motivated to prove she earned the right to contribute.
“There is a lot more pressure being the coach’s daughter because you have to prove to people that you deserve to be out there,” Ashton noted. “Some think, ‘Hey, she’s the coach’s daughter. So they’ll just let her out there to play.’ You definitely have to get out there and play. And I’ve had some great teammates. And we’re like a family.”
Amber said from Coach Layton to Ashton, all the members of the 2011 team came together to make school history.
“She was a freshman the year they won State,” she recalled. “This class is the last of that State Championship team. I couldn’t have been more proud of her contributions as an incoming freshman that she made. We’re a small private school. And nobody expected us to make it to the State championship level, let alone win it.
“She did a great job along with all the kids,” Amber added. “They were such a close group and all did what they had to do. They had their eyes on the goal.”
Another goal of Ashton has been to earn a college scholarship.
“I remember being a little girl watching the College World Series thinking, ‘I want to be her one day,’” she said. “I know it’s not going to UT-Knox playing D-I. But it’s the next level. It gets me a step closer to my dream. It’s weird because it seems like yesterday I was that little girl watching them on TV. And I remember I was a sophomore watching Roxanna and all of them signing. Now today it was my day.”
Amber said it was a combination of her daughter’s pitching, defense and hitting that got the attention of Northwest Mississippi Head Coach Mike Rowan.
The coaching staff at Northwest also features new assistant coach Carie Dever Boaz, with 20 years of experience including SEC schools.
“We started losing (pitching) to graduation,” Amber said. “So she had to come out of retirement. Bless her heart, some things you do because you have to, you do it for your team. There are some who say I’m not going to do it. And she has put in the extra time working with coaches outside of the school. This year she’ll carry the main load for the pitching.
“She has a great bat,” she added. “She has 101 RBIs over the past three years. She’s only struck out seven times in three years. So, the bat was a big factor. And her skills at first base, it’s second nature to her. It’s a combination of the three that has gotten her the scholarship.”
Amber has been close by for all of Ashton’s big moments on the field. In a Lady Rebel uniform, Amber witnessed her daughter’s big hit in the 2011 State Tournament to win a game, the homer that led to TRA’s first Region title and the Sub-State game winning home run against.
“She’s coached me all my life, literally on every team I’ve ever been on,” Ashton noted. “This year is going to be different. It’s going to be a change.”
Coach Needham and Layton have handed over the reigns to incoming Head Coach Johnie Sanfratello.
Layton said Sanfratello will keep the good time going with Lady Rebel Softball with players like Ashton, Taylor Beasley and Bethany Berger.
The program got on the map years ago with the contributions of several players, boosters, coaches and families like the Hornbys, Hammons and Sterlings.
Layton said the arrival of the Needhams moved Lady Rebel Softball to even higher level.
“Both of them have that intensity, that want-to when it comes to winning,” he said. “Momma might have a little bit more intensity. But it’s been a good relationship. I think it will be good for both of them this year to be able to sit back and enjoy the season that they’re going to have. It’s been a very, very good three years working relationship as for the coaching aspect.”
Amber said she will cherish the days as Lady Rebel assistant coach having her daughter be a part of that successful run.
But the signing of Ashton to Northwest made both mother and coach proud.
“I’m most proud of the person she is,” Amber concluded. “She’s a good kid. She always has been. I sometimes give her a hard time, too much than I need to. She’s just a good kid. She has a big heart. I hate to see her go, but I’m excited to watch her fly. But as a human being, she’s a good person.”
I don’t think I gave my kid credit for working hard. Ball has been a big part of her life, all her life. And even though girls like her love this sport, they do miss out on the occasional ‘social gathering’ because they are on the field…a lot, training for a day like today. She has always been a pleaser. She wants to do good for the team, for her coach, for her family. If she has a bad game, she carries that weight on her shoulders until she fixes it.
On the State tourney win her freshman year, our final game alone she drove in 4 of our 7 runs. She was close the tying the RBI record for a Tn state championship tournament. Her impact on this high school team has been significant with 101 RBI’s over 3 years and a fielding percentage that has never dropped below .996.
Being her coach and her mom has been tough on her from time to time. There is that stigmatism that coaches’ kids have it easy and in my career I have seen evidence of that from time to time, but for the most part, parent coaches are harder on their own kids. Not only because you expect more, but you never want anyone to think your kid is ‘given’ a position. I always told Ashton, you have to give more because of who I am and Ashton understood that, therefore, she made sure she did what she needed to do so everyone saw she earned her position.
Off the field she has a 3.61 GPA. She has been involved in service activities such as Tipton County Jr Auxillary Crown Club, graduate of TOTAL leadership course, volunteered at Covington retirement center and the Boys and Girls club which is being implemented in Covington. She is a member of BETA, National Honor Society, and Mu Theta Alpha.
Like I said before, she is a good kid that has matured into a wonderful young lady. She has good values and is strong in her faith. She knows God has blessed her in so many ways and that His path is the one to follow. We are sad to see her go, but so excited to watch her fly.