BY Chris Goltermann
On campus at Newnan High School, Ashleigh Smitherman and Taylor Price are described with glowing adjectives describing both their talent and determination as members of Thursday’s graduating Class of 2019.
But as some student-athletes come to find upon graduation, opportunities aren’t always available to compete at the next level.
This story, however, has a pair of happy endings.
For Smitherman, the hurdle was consecutive ACL tears in back-to-back seasons that robbed the 2017 Coweta County Girls Co-Soccer Player of the Year from playing on the varsity as either a junior or a senior.
It also dried up some of the established NCAA recruiters that were on her heels after scoring 29 goals as a sophomore.
Price, meanwhile, only had one year to show what she could accomplish at the state level in the inaugural GHSA girls wrestling tournament. After battling in the boys lineup at 152 pounds, the Newnan senior became the school’s first-ever girls GHSA placer by finishing third in her weight class.
Over the last month, both had colleges that were all too thrilled to provide opportunities that will continue their respective athletic careers.
Smitherman, who had planned to attend Auburn as a student with hopes of eventually walking on as a soccer recruit, accepted an offer from Truett McConnell.
Head coach David McDowell, who was on hand for her signing on May 1, called Smitherman’s signing an “absolute steal,” with the school also fitting her academic needs.
Her only chance to take the field for Newnan in 2019 came on Senior Night before immediately being subbed after the opening kickoff.
“I never got a chance to see her play since this is my first year here, but she is the heart and soul of Newnan girls soccer,” Robbins said.
In addition to competing at a high level during her freshman and sophomore years as a starter at Newnan, Smitherman was a top performer for Birmingham United’s prestigious club program.
“She personifies perseverance in fighting through two separate ACL surgeries to get the opportunity to play college soccer. I am personally thrilled to see someone who loves the game, plays it with tremendous passion get an opportunity to play at the next level,” Birmingham Southern executive director Andrew Brower said in a statement upon her signing. “It is also a testament to her character to keep fighting. I could not be more proud of Ashleigh.”
On Thursday, Price made her commitment to Brewton Parker equally official while signing with one of just three Georgia colleges to offer women’s wrestling.
“It awesome to see all of what we do at Newnan athletics and how our kids are celebrated not only in our community but when they get to do what they can do at the next level,” said high school athletic director Randy Robbins. “One of my favorite memories as my first year as athletic director was seeing Taylor against one of the toughest opponents in the state and send the girl walking off to take her inhaler and have to be carted off holding on to the shoulder of her coach. A little shy smile is all [Taylor] had to show for it. She’s as humble as she can be, as good of an athlete as she can be and just a great young lady.”
Brewton Parker women’s coach Brittney Gadd was equally keeping a close eye on Price at this year’s state tournament, where she posted a 5-1 record with four pins. The Newnan senior also became the first female recipient of the Georgia FCA’s Wrestler of the Year Award.
“I feel she’ll be a great fit for us, academically and spiritually. After that, wrestling is a big fat bonus,” Gadd said. “I basically hit the jackpot.”
Newnan head coach Sean Hage, who recently accepted an opening at Lumpkin County, remembered some of the adversity Price faced immediately when coming out to wrestle. She becomes only the second female wrestler that Hage — a four-time state champion — has coached while able to move on to college.
“When she came out, she struggled. She was fighting and she kept struggling, but she finally made it work,” Hage said. “I think she has a lot more potential, especially having met coach Gad. I’m really excited to see what she’s going to do at the next level.”