BY DEAN HOCKNEY
KOKOMO, Ind. – “Everyone is replaceable; make yourself unforgettable.”
Unforgettable is a word that will forever be used with the 2003 Kokomo High School girls basketball team after they ran the gauntlet unscathed and captured the IHSAA Class 4A state championship with a perfect 26-0 record. On that hallowed squad – the only undefeated basketball team in Kokomo history – was senior Ashley Hayes. The former Lady Kat star recently returned to the City of Firsts and talked about the Lady Kats, Murray State and her current profession at Butler University.
She started by recalling how she got her start – and toughness – in the sport she loves.
“Some of my first memories of basketball come from playing at Carver Center,” recalled Hayes. “One thing I learned about playing with the boys was if you wanted the ball, you had to go get the ball. They don’t like to pass. But it really helped to develop me, so I credit a lot of my good play to that. And it really helped me develop my rebounding.”
While she earned her statewide recognition as a Lady Kat, she earned her stripes as a Lady Panther at Western. Hayes played her first two years at the Howard County school before moving to Kokomo following her sophomore season.
“I really had a good career at Western, but at the end of my sophomore year my parents got a divorce,” recalled Hayes. “We needed a change and chose Kokomo to move into. And no, it wasn’t just for basketball.”
But her move to K-Town proved to be beneficial, not only for herself, but for the Lady Kats. In two season with the squad, Hayes and the Lady Kats were 43-4 with a pair of North Central Conference crowns and the 2003 state title. The title team featured Indiana All-Stars DeUnna Hendrix and Anne Thatcher and four NCAA Division I performers (Hendrix at Richmond, Thatcher at Indiana State, Ashley Johnson at IPFW and Hayes at Murray State). The squad also had future NAIA All-American and current Eastern assistant coach Lisa Thompson. Despite this talent, Hayes was still named second team all-state and a McDonald’s All-American nominee. She is also currently ranked No. 21 on Howard County’s 1,000 Point Club with 1,126 points.
“I am very glad I moved to Kokomo,” said Hayes, who grabbed a team-high seven rebounds in the title bout – thanks to playing against the boys at Carver Center. “That was an awesome experience to go undefeated. We had great players on the team, had a great coach (Charlie Hall) and we had fun.”
She continued her playing career at Murray State University in Murray, Ken. As she likes to say, “Most people have never heard of Murray, but it is about six hours from Kokomo and my grandparents had just retired to Murray.”
She played four seasons at MSU, but unfortunately broke her foot her senior season and missed on the opportunity to play in the National Invitational Tournament.
“I was already playing with a stress fracture, but I told my coaches and trainers I was gong to keep playing,” she said. “So in our exhibition game, I was dribbling and heard a crack and knew I had broken it. I decided not to redshirt, and that turned into a pivotal year for me. I got to sit on the bench and see what the coaches saw and that is when I realized coaching was something I might want to do. I also learned about my own attitude. I had a quick temper, but when I sat there and saw my teammates doing the same thing, I realized how it looked. Like I said, that was a pivotal year for me, and I truly believe things happen for a reason.”
Following graduation, Hayes accepted a position as a third coach at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro in the Southern Conference. One year later, she found herself back on the sidelines of Murray State – this time as an assistant coach. She helped guide Murray State to 45 wins in three seasons. MSU’s best season with Hayes on the bench was 2008-09, when the Racers finished 23-9 and advanced to the second round of the WNIT. The 2009 MSU team won the OVC regular season title and posted a 14-0 mark at home. The team was ranked in the nation’s top 10 in scoring and led the country in team free throw shooting (.826).
“I was really comfortable at Murray and really didn’t want to leave,” said Hayes. “But a coaching position opened at Butler; I knew I wanted to apply. Well, I got the job and now I get to pull up to my office in Hinkle Fieldhouse. I get to work in Hinkle Fieldhouse! How great is that? I am so blessed. And I get to walk by (men’s basketball coach) Brad Steven’s office every day and watch him practice. I get to be part of the Butler Way. It is awesome.”
Hayes is currently the recruiting coordinator for the Bulldog women’s team – a position in which she is either really happy or really sad, depending on the news a recruit gives her.
“It is either no or yes. In or out. There is no in-between,” she said with a laugh, before getting serious. “My stress level is very high.”
While speaking to a group of Howard County high school players, Hayes offered the girls sound advice on working hard, achieving success at whatever they do and to always strive to set themselves apart from the rest.
“Everyone is replaceable; make yourself unforgettable,” said Hayes. “That was first told to me by a coach at Murray State. A coach told me that there was a million Ashley Hayes’ out there. I was taken aback by that, but I realized I needed to set myself apart and make my own mark. I had to make myself different and make them not forget me.”
Ashley Hayes is one of the unforgettable ones who played on that magical unforgettable Lady Kats squad. Now, as a seasoned college assistant coach, she continues to successfully live by that mantra.