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Written by Kristin Anton

When the story of this year’s Trinity Western women’s basketball team is told, the central figures will remain forwards Tessa Ratzlaff and Kayla Gordon. They are the team’s two Canada West all-stars, with Ratzlaff, who led TWU in scoring, being a first-teamer and Gordon, who led the team in rebounding, being a third-teamer.

They’re the ones leading the boxscores and they’re the ones garnering the media attention. They’re the ones you see most often on Instagram.

Yet, it’s fifth-year Spartan forward Ashleigh Barnes – somewhat in the shadows of her spotlighted teammates – who has quietly played a role that might just be the very crux of both her teammates’ individual success and the unprecedented and historic success of this year’s Spartans side.

Without Barnes, who averaged 6.3 rebounds and 5.9 points in 18.8 minutes per game this year, the Spartans simply aren’t the same. Perhaps this year's history-making season doesn’t even happen at all.

The 5-foot-9 Barnes grew up in Oceanside, Calif. Her basketball story began when she started playing the sport in Grade 10. But it wasn’t until a year later she began to take the game seriously. In Grade 11, her passion was sparked and basketball came to the forefront of her life. After graduating from Guajoe Park Academy in Vista, Calif., Barnes decided to go to California State University. But upon arriving and understanding the commitment needed to play with the basketball team, she let her dream go and decided to focus on her studies.

That all changed when she decided to transfer to Palomar College in San Marcos, Calif in 2013. There, she rediscovered her love for basketball, walked on with the team and became a Palomar Comet, playing within the California Community College Athletic Association for two years.

Then, her plans changed again. Barnes had seen two former players from Palomar, Mikaela Stanton (in 2014) and Keisha Cox (in 2015), move up to Manitoba to play for the Brandon Bobcats and their decision to play up north inspired Barnes to keep her options open.

Meanwhile, at the same time in Langley, B.C., the Spartans found themselves in search of a player just like Barnes. TWU coach Cheryl Jean-Paul had learned that one of her players was unable to return and suddenly she needed to fill a hole at the forward position. Casting a widespread net across the state of California, Jean-Paul connected with Barnes and started a conversation. Of the 10 girls Jean-Paul contacted, Barnes was the one who kept the conversation going the longest and showed the most interest.

A trip to Langley solidified Barnes’ plans. It was all coming together for Barnes, knowing she could finish her psychology degree while having her financial needs met. With the help of Jean-Paul, she also figured she would be able to adjust to the Canadian lifestyle.

“Cheryl hit the nail right on the head and was able to make me feel comfortable,” Barnes says. “She helped me understand that is would be a difficult process, but assured me there would be people along the way who would help make it happen.”

With all her questions answered and a plan in place, it was the fast-paced competition of the league that ultimately helped Barnes make her final decision to commit to TWU.

“It just made sense,” Jean-Paul says. “She brought a lot of passion, energy and competitiveness and she is exactly what we needed at the time.”

For Barnes, it was also a commitment done through faith. Barnes took on the transition one day at a time, putting her trust in God. Her plan was actually His plan.

“The transition helped me grow in my faith,” Barnes says. “I know God is always going to have my back.”

Barnes joined the Spartans for their 2015-16 season and brought energy from day one.

“My skill level has changed over my time here, but my energy has always stayed the same,” Barnes says. “You can see a difference when I’m on the floor. I bring the energy.”

Barnes also brings a competitive level to practice that proved to be an instrumental piece in the Spartans ability to put together the best regular season record (16-4) in program history.

“She wasn’t afraid to offend people with how competitive she was going to get,” Jean-Paul says.

In practice, Barnes forced people to decide how much they wanted to work. She forced her teammates to compete every day in practice. The Spartans leading forwards, including Barnes, Gordon and Ratzlaff, have been battling against each other in practice for three years. Their improvement has been a product of how hard they practice against each other.

“Ashleigh has made me a better player, and I am thankful for her willingness to compete, and ability to push her teammates to be better players,” Ratzlaff says. “She has brought another level of competitiveness to our team and has had an important role on our team these last three years, helping us significantly in both practice and in games.”

Over time, Barnes’ role within the team became more concrete. There is a successful flow that comes from the three forwards rotating onto the court. Barnes, Gordon and Ratzlaff all have different skill sets that work together.

“Even if one of them is in foul trouble or struggling in a part of the game, the momentum within our forwards is kept alive,” Jean-Paul says.

After the three forwards realized they weren’t actually competing against each other, but rather complementing each other, the team grew into the competitive side it is today.

There’s no doubt she’s made the Spartans team and community better – something that has also become part of who she is beyond the TWU court. In her three years at TWU, Barnes has become a key member of the local basketball community as she has coached youth basketball teams with the Vancouver Sports Club. Working with the young girls soon became a passion for Barnes.

“I have received nothing but compliments with how she interactions with the kids” Jean-Paul says.

During this past season, the Spartans hosted Brandon University at TWU’s on-campus David E. Enarson Gym.

When the Spartans and Bobcats went to their locker rooms for halftime, a young girls basketball team took over the court to play a mini game. When the Spartans returned to the court, the young girls’ faces lit up, as they saw that the Spartans now watching them and, soon enough, it was Barnes who was calling out and encouraging several of the players by name. She found that coaching these girls taught her a lot as an athlete. She realized how much it keeps her accountable. If she was going to tell the girls to put the time in, then she better be practicing what she preaches.

Barnes also realized that coaching these kids was also helpful in adjusting to her move away from home.

“It helped me balance out a lot of emotions and allowed me to be busy with my time,” she says. “It’s something that I could potentially do in my future.”

Since arriving back in 2015, Barnes has bought into the Spartans women’s basketball program whole-heartedly and has found herself helping the team make history in her fifth and final year of her university eligibility.

For that, Barnes deserves a piece of the spotlight.