With her athleticism, it’s easy to imagine Ashley Baran as a playmaker. Or a fleet outfielder.
It might surprise you to learn that she’s been both of those things – because once the opening whistle blows and you see her start playing on a football pitch, it’s hard to tell. imagine doing something else.
“I played basketball, softball and all those sports,” Baran said. “I had fun playing all the others, but I think I enjoyed this one the most and I had pure talent in it, so I stuck with it and worked on it. I always liked scoring; that was the best feeling. That’s why I loved playing soccer – scoring. It’s an achievement every time you score.
“I think this sport came naturally to me.”
The score also came naturally. Baran did it 83 times in three seasons for the Holy Cross Prep Academy women’s soccer team. She does this by outplaying her opponents, outplaying them, shoving them around and being able to put the ball on the net – with a bit of venom – with both feet.
She will do so again this year as the centerpiece of a team that head coach Sergio Torres says is ready to do great things.
“It could be a fun year,” he said. “Not only on the pitch, but also on the bench. We have parts everywhere. We have two very good goalkeepers. They’re fighting right now for a starting spot and they can actually just split the time, which is amazing. I have a super strong defensive body, and in midfield it’s ultra-competitive. It’s gonna be fun.
“And I think I have a few girls in mind who are going to be able to take some of Ashley’s load off, which is going to even make us more dangerous. Now they have to focus on someone else. “Do you do at that time? I think we have a really strong team; one of the best I’ve seen in a few years.”
Baran, for his part, doesn’t seem to care too much about the burden. She expressed her willingness to wear it in her first year, when she scored 29 times in 18 games. The 2020 season – his second year – was shortened to 10 contests by the coronavirus pandemic, but Baran still found the net 21 times as the Lancers won a sectional championship.
Expectations were high last season, but the Lancers were derailed by a six-game losing streak early in the season. They finished the season on a 12-game unbeaten streak (9-0-3), but fell to Bishop Eustace in a playoff penalty shootout.
Baran’s share of this roller coaster ride was 33 goals. She also delivered nine assists to take her career tally in that category to 21. She also showed signs of improving her game.
“It was funny to watch. There’s definitely been an improvement in terms of understanding ‘I have to play the ball a bit more’, and it’s not always me, me,” Torres said. “She kind of had to do that, because she didn’t have the help she had in 2020; like a (Michaela) Salvati, like Maura Gaves. She had senior people (in 2020) doing plays and making things happen, so she kind of had to take on that role last year as well, and she did.
Torres named her captain in her freshman year, which he says is rare in the Lancers program. She’ll wear the armband again this year, with all that experience powering the Lancers’ drive into 2022.
“We want to win our division and be state champions — not just South Jersey champions, like my sophomore year — we want to win it all,” Baran said. “I think we have the depth and we have the talent, if used correctly.”
You might see a change in Baran’s game along the way, but it’s subtle.
“She’s always very skilled and very dynamic with the ball,” Torres said. “She can do everything – passing, scoring, assisting, scoring goals. She just does it faster and harder now. She went from a girl to a young woman, as she went from a second to a senior. It’s a big difference.
It’s something she perceives too.
“As I get older and become a better player, the game gets slower at the high school level. It’s just to get used to the game,” Baran said. “I think over the last few years I’ve gotten stronger as a player. I’m able to be more physical with the girls and beat them off the ball, and on top of that I think my dribbling and my shooting has improved.
As for this new fitness, some other sports played a part.
“I love skiing and surfing. I started surfing when I was very young – around 5 years old. I spent my summers on the shore and learned to surf. I don’t go there much anymore, but I still like to grab my board and go,” Baran said. “I think surfing really helps me keep my balance. You need that when there are defenders on you, trying to push you off the ball. It has to do with all sports – everything.
“Skiing, I go there every winter. I’m not bad at it, but I’m not super good at it. I’m just going for that. It’s not natural for me. I don’t really know how to stop.
Not surprising. Nobody else figured out how to stop it either.
Seventeen goals before the centenary, there is little reason to think that she will not reach 100 before moving on.
And she’s going to continue her business studies in an elite program.
“Right now, I’m verbally committed to Rutgers,” Baran said. “I almost grew up there. I was literally up there every winter since I was in 7th grade, doing ID camps. I fell in love with the school and they have a great football program. I love coaches. It’s just my house.
However, there are still some unfinished business in Delran.
“We don’t have to win everything, but it would be nice,” Baran said. “We have some revenge to take on some teams.”
These teams know it. Lancers won’t sneak up on anyone.
“We’ve been making noise for the last three years,” Torres said. “I think we’re going to get some notoriety, and if we do, great. And if we don’t, it doesn’t matter either.
John A. Lewis is a sports reporter for the Burlington County Times, Courier Post and The Daily Journal. Email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @JohnLewis19. Please consider supporting local journalism with a subscription.