It is always easy to think about what could have been – to ponder the effect that one seemingly insignificant action might have on the course of a life.
Even though senior Ashley Buckingham has as much of a right to do this as anyone, she refuses to play that game.
As a high school All-State selection in 2001, Buckingham came to Michigan with hopes of being an impact player on a rising Big Ten volleyball program.
But, three serious knee injuries later and before she played single point for Michigan, doctors told Buckingham that she could no longer be a competitive athlete.
Still, Buckingham has no regrets about her experience with Michigan volleyball. After her third injury, she assumed a role as student assistant for the volleyball team.
FINDING HER NICHE IN VOLLEYBALL
Growing up in Greenwood, Ind., Buckingham’s original passion was basketball.
“(My dad and I) would go to the gym, and I would shoot for hours,” Buckingham said. “We would work on things until they were perfect.”
She was not introduced to volleyball until sixth grade when her gym teacher – Ann Gandolph (mother of former Michigan spiker Jennifer Gandolph) – noticed Buckingham’s height and athleticism.
Having already established herself in basketball, Buckingham initially brushed off the suggestion. But after making an Indianapolis travel squad, she soon found her niche.
In high school, Buckingham was a three-sport star – earning accolades in volleyball, basketball and track and field.
By her junior year, she began to attract the attention of both college basketball and volleyball coaches and was pressured to choose one of them.
“I just liked playing (volleyball) better, and I liked my teammates,” Buckingham said.
Jennifer Gandolph – who graduated last year and is currently the assistant volleyball coach at the University of New Orleans – played alongside Buckingham for three years in high school.
“She made a statement on the floor and would let people know when we won a point,” Gandolph said about Buckingham. “She got everybody around her fired up.”
Buckingham’s passion for volleyball was only heightened by winning the state championship her junior year. Gandolph recalls the event as her favorite high school memory.
“It was an amazing experience for both of us,” Gandolph said.
BECOMING A WOLVERINE
During her recruitment process, Buckingham developed a passion for the Michigan program.
“I chose Michigan because the people were real with me,” Buckingham said. “You certainly want to come here because of the good program and amazing academics, but it’s more about relationships.”
At a club tournament in the summer before her junior year, with Michigan coach Mark Rosen and Gandolph in attendance, Buckingham notified Rosen of her intention to attend Michigan.
“We had her call (Rosen’s) cell phone that day in the gym to commit,” Gandolph said. “I was thrilled to get to play with her again.”
In the fall of her senior season of high school, Buckingham’s volleyball career experienced its first setback. During the third play of a game, Buckingham successfully executed a kill but tore her ACL when her left leg buckled upon landing.
“Her first injury was more devastating than any of her other ones because we did not know what was going to happen to her future, athletically,” Kathy Buckingham, Ashley’s mom, said.
After rehabbing all year, Buckingham’s leg still had not fully recovered, forcing her to redshirt her freshman year. Despite the hindrance, she continued to move forward and prepare for her redshirt freshman season.
“I worked my butt off to get back and compete for spring season.” Buckingham said. “Spring season, I was a starter and excited to get back in the fall as a redshirt freshman.”
Buckingham’s career took another hit when she returned home to Greenwood the summer after her freshman year. While participating in conditioning drills with the high school football team, she landed awkwardly on her left leg and re-tore her ACL.
Despite the setback, Buckingham was not discouraged.
“I rehabbed my sophomore year and got ready to compete for a spot my redshirt sophomore year,” Buckingham said.
The final blow to her volleyball career came the next summer when she tore both of her menisci.
“After that, I asked the doctors what I need to do to get back,” Buckingham said. “They told me, ‘Ashley, you can’t do this to your body anymore. It won’t hold up any longer.’ “
STAYING WITH THE PROGRAM
After an initial feeling of devastation, Buckingham realized that her Michigan experience would not be complete without continued involvement in the volleyball program. Buckingham and coaches Mark and Leisa Rosen discussed ways that she could remain involved. They established a role for her as a student assistant.
“Leaving the team was never an option for me or for them,” Buckingham said. “I had invested so much time and energy into a program that I believe in. My best friends are on the team, and I am very close with the coaching staff.”
Buckingham’s decision to stay with the team has earned her admiration from her teammates.
“I respect her for the impact she has had on Michigan volleyball,” redshirt junior captain Erin Cobler said. “A lot of people, when they are injured and can no longer get the glory any more, would give up and leave the program. (Buckingham) made a commitment her senior year of high school, and she has taken it seriously.”
Buckingham worked with the coaching staff to find her new niche on the team. Performing similar tasks, such as recruitment, as when she was recovering from her knee injuries, she has easily slipped into her new role.
On a personal level, Leisa Rosen feels that she has benefited from Buckingham’s continued participation in the program.
“She is such a mature, incredible person to be around,” Rosen said. “We are extremely lucky – the volleyball program and me personally – to have her stay involved.”
Although Buckingham’s duties also include assisting with the team’s marketing and promotion, her main task involves recruiting. She is an integral part of the process with duties such as writing letters to potential recruits and escorting them when they come on official and unofficial visits.
“She sits and talks with (the recruits) during practices instead of them just sitting and watching practice,” Rosen said. “Every recruit that got to know her just raved about her and the person that she is.”
One current volleyball player that Buckingham helped recruit is freshman Beth Karpiak – who coincidentally wears Buckingham’s old No. 2 jersey.
“She was really positive and upbeat, willing to answer any questions I had,” Karpiak said. “On my first visit, we sat and talked in the Diag. She also talked with my parents about the coaches, balancing class and volleyball and how it is being part of the Michigan volleyball team.”
Buckingham is serious about helping the team’s recruiting efforts and enjoys building relationships that can last from the time that she begins until prospects make their final decisions.
“I take it personally, and they become friends of mine, because I care about them and their futures,” Buckingham said. “I loved recruiting (Karpiak) and I loved her family. And now, she is going to be an impact player at Michigan.”
Buckingham also contributed to the recruitment of three current starters – sophomores Lyndsay Miller, Katie Bruzdzinski and redshirt freshman Mara Martin.
“It is the fruits of my labor because I worked really hard and they are here now,” Buckingham said.
Her level of commitment to recruitment does not come as a surprise to her teammates who observe her habits on a daily basis.
“She has one of the strongest work ethics of anyone I have ever known,” Cobler said. “Even though she can’t play on the court, she works her butt off – working out physically, with school and helping out with recruiting.”
A ROLE MODEL
Although no longer a competitor, Buckingham feels intimately connected with the rest of the team.
“The (team members) are like my sisters,” Buckingham said. “This is my family up at Michigan.”
When she played in high school, Buckingham was a vocal and energetic player on the court. In her new role, Leisa Rosen sees Buckingham as one of the team’s leaders, but in a slightly different capacity.
“She is comfortable in the role that she had established for herself being an emotional leader on the team, instead of a physical leader,” Rosen said.
In fact, the team’s captains sometimes approach Buckingham for advice because of her unique perspective.
“I look to her because she knows Michigan volleyball and what we stand for and value,” Cobler said. “She is in the unique position that she has been in the program just as long as me but she can step back and see things that I can’t see – like the team dynamic.”
Even though Buckingham does not have a specific role on the road, she travels with the team and provides any support or assistance the team needs.
“I am just a teammate that doesn’t get to suit up for the games,” Buckingham said. “I am in there with the inside jokes, the fun, in the back of the bus and in the middle of the talks.”
Another aspect of Buckingham’s association with the sport includes doing color commentary for Comcast. After broadcasting several Michigan volleyball matches and the Mid-American Conference Championship last year, Buckingham plans on doing more of the same this year.
“It was a great opportunity that fell into my lap,” Buckingham said.
In addition to her involvement in the volleyball program, Buckingham’s injuries have opened opportunities for her to be more active in the community. She spends her time volunteering once a week at C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital and reading to children.
“I love helping others,” Buckingham said. “I need to feel like I am being productive, and I love being around people.”
With all of the opportunities, both on and off the court, her mother feels that Buckingham has maximized her college experience, despite the injuries.
“I think that not being able to play has opened more doors for her than just being a volleyball player,” Kathy Buckingham said.
Buckingham looks to use many of the skills that she has learned as a student assistant after her graduation.
“I have learned so much, whether it be leadership, perseverance and overcoming adversity,” Buckingham said.
Upon entering Michigan, Buckingham expected her biggest impact on the volleyball program to be her performance on the court. Although she never registered a kill, it’s clear that her imprint on the program will remain, both on and off the court, for many years.