During the first nine years of Ashley Mess’s soccer career — from kindergarten through eighth grade — her father, John, was unable to attend exactly two of her games. They would turn out to be the only two games either Mess parent would miss of their daughter’s standout career.
Four years of soccer for Mess — as well as her twin sister, Jessica — at Northwest High School in Cedar Hill, Mo., followed by four years of soccer for the sisters at Webster University. Zero games missed, combined, by their father and mother, Kathy. Home games, road games, hot games, cold games. Big wins, tough losses and every tie sandwiched in between. John and Kathy Mess were in the stands for all of them.
“They even planned a special vacation this past season to travel down to watch our preseason game in Alabama,” Ashley Mess said. “They are the most dedicated people I’ve ever met in my life.”
As Mess was evaluating colleges, location was of paramount importance, as she wanted her parents to be able to attend her games with ease. She also was searching for a school with a strong academic pedigree and a soccer coach who cared more about his players’ well-being than his team’s record.
Webster University and Luigi Scire, who has coached all 17 years of the women’s soccer program’s existence, fit the bill. “When I came and visited Webster and talked to Luigi, it was a pretty simple choice,” Mess said.
Mess graduated this past May with a BA in advertising and marketing communications. What she accomplished at Webster in the four years prior — both on the field and in the classroom — is nothing short of remarkable, not to mention historic.
In addition to being named to the 2015 NSCAA (National Soccer Coaches Association of America) All-Central Region first team, Mess was a four-time All-Conference selection. She was the 2015 St. Louis Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Co-Defensive Player of the Year and was twice picked to the SLIAC All-Tournament team.
“She’s just a brick,” said Ally Nikolaus, who played with Mess in 2012 and ’13. “I would never run into her at practice. She’s out for blood when she’s on the field, and it’s awesome.”
Mess led Webster to four straight SLIAC regular-season championships and three conference tournament titles, which automatically qualified the Gorloks for three NCAA Tournaments. Webster compiled a 62-19- 4 overall record and 33-2 conference mark in Mess’s four years with the program.
From an individual standpoint, Mess’s most impressive accolade came at the conclusion of her final season. Mess — who was a regular on the Dean’s List and SLIAC All-Academic teams — was named a 2015 NSCAA Scholar All-American. She was the first student-athlete in Webster women’s soccer history, not to mention SLIAC women’s soccer history, to earn the distinction.
“Honestly, I didn’t believe it at first,” Mess said. “To me, what I do is normal. I don’t do anything super special. I just go out there, try my hardest and do what I can on the field and off the field.”
While Mess was both surprised and excited by the Scholar All-American recognition, no one was more thrilled by the news than her father, he of nearly perfect game attendance. Like his daughters, John Mess played college soccer, so he knew firsthand the challenges of balancing athletics and academics.
It’s the hope of Scott Kilgallon, director of athletics, that other Webster student-athletes will take note of Mess’s award and seek to follow in her footsteps. Mess, who graduated with a 3.9 GPA and summa cum laude honors, helps dispel the societal misperception of the “dumb jock,” Kilgallon said.
In actuality, student-athletes graduate at a higher rate compared to the general student body in all three NCAA divisions, according to the NCAA’s most recent Graduation Success Rate study. At the Division-III level, in which Webster competes, student-athletes graduated at a 69-percent clip for the 2014-15 academic year. The D-III general student population graduated at a rate of 62 percent that same academic year.
“For freshmen and underclassmen, those kids see what Ashley has done — she set an example of working hard on the pitch and working hard in the classroom,” Kilgallon said. “It’s my hope that helps with the culture change and inspires men and women of all sports here to say, ‘That’s awesome. We celebrate this. I’m going to strive for this.’ You start to see people follow suit after that.”
Mess earned academic scholarships to attend Webster, which she called a definitive factor in her choice to attend the school. While she had the ability to earn an athletic scholarship elsewhere (D-III schools are not allowed to award athletic scholarships), Mess wanted to be able to properly balance soccer with her studies. The scales can be tipped when athletic scholarships come into play, and Mess said she’d heard horror stories from student-athletes where that had occurred.
“It’s funny because I actually wrote a paper in one of my classes — I called it ‘Insanity’ — because we’re not getting those scholarships,” Mess said. “But we’re putting in just as much work, effort and intensity as D-I and D-II players. We’re giving our all. We’re putting our bodies through hell. I think people think we’re crazy. Why would we put ourselves through all this?” For Mess and her teammates, the answer is simple. “It’s for the pure love of the sport,” she said. “We can’t imagine not playing it. And that’s why I think it’s insane that people think we’re insane. We can’t imagine doing anything else.”
Mess said down the road, when she reflects on her standout four-year Webster career, it’s not going to be the recognition or awards she thinks about. Rather, Mess will recall the people who were along for the ride with her, supporting her on her college journey. That certainly will include Mess’s parents, who were there for her — in-person — every step of the way.
“You can say, ‘Oh, I’m going to remember this game. I’m going to remember this play.’ Throughout the years, that’s all going to fade away. That’s going to blur into one,” Mess said. “You’re going to remember the people. You’re going to remember your teammates who were there for you — picking you up when you fall down, encouraging you when you are mad at yourself. What I’m going to remember are those moments.”