Recent Croatan graduate Ashleigh Wilhoit, seated center, has signed to play softball for a new program at Brunswick Community College next year. Others in the photo are, left to right: sitting, mother Suzanne Barber, father Quint Wilhoit; standing, Brunswick Community College softball coach Bernadette Cardon, Croatan Athletic Director Dave Boal, softball coach Lindsey Gurley, Principal Kay Zimarino and assistant softball coach Jimmy Willis. (Zack Nally photo)

OCEAN — Sometimes a nudge from a coach is all a player needs to realize she is college sports material.

Recent Croatan graduate Ashleigh Wilhoit was content with attending school close to home and saving her money, but head softball coach Lindsey Gurley gave her another idea.

“Coach Gurley actually pulled me aside and asked me if I wanted to play ball at the next level, which was something I hadn’t really considered,” Wilhoit said. “I told her ‘absolutely,’ and then I started emailing back and forth with the coach.”

The four-year varsity player is headed to Brunswick Community College in the fall, where she hopes to study sports medicine while playing for the NJCAA Division I Dolphins.

Wilhoit had the chance to visit her new home in May and was comfortable with the fact that it’s only 110 miles from her high school alma mater.

“I went for my visit, and the next day, I decided to go ahead with it and commit,” she said. “It’s a beautiful campus. It’s small, it’s pretty and it felt like home. It’s familiar, but it’s still something different, which is what I’m looking for.”

When Wilhoit takes the field for Brunswick Community College next spring, it will be for a new softball program. Similarly last year, Croatan baseball players John Keel and Ian Ramirez joined a fledgling Barton program.

“We’re going to be making history for the school,” she said.

While not with a new program as a freshman at Croatan, Wilhoit gained experience in helping the revitalization of the program. When she arrived as a freshman, the Cougars had gone through three coaches in four years. They went 0-15 the first year under Gurley before improving, finishing 2-16 in 2017, 7-14 in 2018 and 9-9 this spring.

“No one thought we were going to do that, and those seniors were a huge part of it,” Gurley said. “This (senior) group means a lot to me because I’ve coached them for four years. They had to be patient and buy in to what I wanted to do. I wasn’t going anywhere, and they were determined to build a program. They made the improvements, and it shows.”

Wilhoit started out as an outfielder before making her way into the infield as a senior.

“She would go anywhere you put her,” Gurley said. “Wherever she went, she made it her own. Ashleigh is the kind of girl who gives 100 percent all of the time. It didn’t matter what we were doing, she was a person I could always count on.”

As a senior, Wilhoit tallied 24 hits, 16 extra-base hits, seven RBIs, nine runs,  and three stolen bases. Her best game of the season came in a 15-2 win over Southwest Onslow on April 29, in which she hit 3-for-4 with a double, four RBIs and two runs.

“When she was a freshman,” Gurley said, “it didn’t matter how many times she got with the ball or how many times she fell down or how many mistakes she made, she went right back at it with passion and a great attitude.”

Wilhoit will suit up with a Dolphins team ready to establish itself as a program for many years next spring. For now, she’s still remembering her time at Croatan fondly.

“I couldn’t have asked for a better high school experience,” Wilhoit said. “I had a great relationship with my coach and ‘Miss Z’ (Principal Kay Zimarino) is the best.”

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