CENTRAL -- Ashley Perry was a member of the Daniel Lions girls' cross-country team that won the state championship in 2000. Seventeen years later, she is the SCTCCCA 4A girls' cross-country coach of the year, directing the 2017 Lady Lions to their first 4A state championship in 10 years, and for Perry, her first state soccer title as a coach.
"These girls have had an amazing year," Perry recently told scrunners.com, a season particularly satisfying following two straight years as team runners-up.
"We didn't want to come up short again," Perry said. Instead, the Daniel girls literally ran away from the field with three runners placing in the top 10; two of them, sophomore Mari Cagle Lockhart and freshman Ally Wilson, finishing first and second respectively, both breaking the 19-minute mark by wide margins.
"The leadership from Mari and Ally has been humble and consistent," Perry said.
Daniel's girls' cross-country program has come a long way since Perry first competed on the team as an eighth-grader in 1995.
"When I started running, Daniel didn't have enough runners to field a full-scoring team," she said, but by the time she graduated in 2000, the program had tripled in size.
Perry not only credits then coach Ron Sullivan for recognizing what was needed to build the Daniel program, but also for the impact his efforts had on her.
"It was a wonderful, confidence-building experience for me," she said.
Perry ran cross-country while a student at Southern Wesleyan. She spent a few years teaching in North Carolina before returning with her husband to the Upstate. She taught science and coached soccer a couple of years at Seneca before returning to Daniel.
"When I interviewed for the teaching job I was asked if I was open to coaching," Perry said. At the time, the couple had three children at home, but their ties to Daniel and the community were strong, as were the coaches who influenced her along the way.
She said it's the people and relationships that mean the most to her nearly 20 years removed from her high school student years; "coaches who taught me to pay the price for not showing up in shape and that hard work pays off, parents who supported us, friends through thousands of miles on the trails."
"I know the importance of a strong program, so now, four years in, I love trying to fill the role that had such a huge impact on my time in school," Perry said.
She said she welcomes the advancements her sport has made over those nearly two decades.
"Back when I was running, if you had four or five kids around the 20-21 minute mark, you were great. But these kids are raising the bar constantly and I think that is awesome," Perry said. She credits the coaches for much of that success.
"Coaches teach you to be your best self, to be accountable, and to contribute. I think that's a big role in kids lives at a critical time of self-identity development."
Perry said, on occasion she'll cross paths with coach Sullivan in Easley, where he still coaches cross-country and track.
"He tells me I look like I'm getting fat and old, yet somehow I feel like he hasn't changed much."