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A wing and a prayer

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A wing and a prayer

Ashley Wingers, CEO and head coach of Southern Volleyball Academy, center, works on fundamentals with teens Kate Muldrew, left, Hannah Kimball, and Tayler Weckbacher on the sand courts at Georgia Southern.



   
    At 26 years old, bright eyed and bushy tailed Ashley Wingers had a little of the pep knocked out of her step when her teaching contract with Georgia Southern was not renewed.
     So with no income, no prospects and no way back into academia what was Wingers’ next rational move?
     She started a business. Not just any business, a volleyball club.
    No, this isn’t the beginning to a coming of age Disney flick. Nor is it the introduction to another TBS Sitcom. Ashley Wingers’ story is real and is happening in your town as you read this right now.
     Wingers, a north Chicago born and bred volleyball star in her prep days, transplanted herself 1,061 miles south to Jacksonville University to continue her career playing as a member of the Dolphin team. Ashley August — as she was known then — played for Jacksonville from 2008 to 2012 along with being a member of the physics society, math society and student government.
     Essentially, the typical do-it-all wizkid your parents wish you could be.
     Though Wingers is far too modest to admit it, she was a model college student through her years in Jacksonville. And she hasn’t changed much since then, as her voicemail will tell you:
     “Hey it’s Ashley, sorry i missed your call,” she says in a tone akin to the cheeriest of PBS kids shows. “If I missed your call I’m doing one of four things, playing volleyball, at church, cooking or teaching physics.”
     While her passion for volleyball, cooking and teaching haven’t much changed since her college years — her church and spiritual life has. For all her life until college, Wingers was raised in a strict church environment much like many kids are down south. But for most of that life the way her religion made her feel like a lesser person — not good enough for God or anything he promised if you were so perfect to reach his afterlife.
     But that perspective changed when Wingers finally left the confines of the windy city and went to church with a teammate of hers in Jacksonville. It was then she had the startling revelation: Christianity doesn’t have to be played by her family’s set of rules.
     “I wanted to know if God was real because I wanted to raise a family in his light in the future. I do believe in the Bible and I grew up in a strict church and it just felt fake because we pretended everything was okay,” Wingers said. “I never thought I was good enough to get to heaven, and why try if that’s the case. Then my friend invited me to her church and said Jesus died for your sins and that’s all that really matters. I was confused at first, but I that’s when I came to learn my life was more than about me.” 
     If we’re still writing the Disney script, this is where the whole story changes. Because it was after Wingers — in her own words — stopped living for “her” and started living for “him”, him being God of course. In that revelation Wingers realized she wasn’t playing volleyball for the right reasons — so right before her senior beach season in 2012 Wingers did something she thought she’d never do.
     “I told my coaches I couldn’t play outdoor because I was doing it for the wrong reasons,” Wingers said. “The right reasons are to honor the Lord and I don’t have these abilities because of me it’s because the Lord blessed me with them. They accepted it, even though I’m sure they were confused at first.”
     As much as she loved volleyball, Wingers hoped one day God would bring the sport back into her life. So in the interim she would move on to Gainesville to obtain her masters degree in teaching physics, which would then lead her to Statesboro to hold down a job as a term instructor teaching physics at Georgia Southern University.
     So now the year is 2014, and even while she did play sparingly at Florida the itch to get back onto the court was still pulsating at an unscratchable spot for Wingers. But she wasn’t going to budge until she got a sign from God it was time to get back into the game.
     And as it always seems to go in these stories, God did finally send down an answer.
     The Southern Slammers Volleyball Club was the only club team accessible to Bulloch County girls for a long time, and the head of the operation — Brett McIntosh — saw Wingers fit to be one of his coaches in the organization. McIntosh originally started up Southern Slammers for his daughter, and everyone working for the club did so on a volunteer basis including Wingers.
     “She had extreme knowledge and passion for not just the sport but sharing it with the kids,” McIntosh said. “I consistently had parents come to me complimenting how well the girls received Ashley.”
     But once McIntosh’s daughter was out of the club, he lost the interest and passion to keep the operation running — ultimately deciding to shut it down. But there was still a need for a volleyball club in Bulloch County and McIntosh saw the perfect person to keep club volleyball going strong in the area.
     “I shared with her the plans and asked if Ashley would be interested in picking up and keeping a club running,” McIntosh said. “I saw the fire in her eyes. I knew the girls in this area were going to be in good hands.”
     So now we’re back to the introduction to our coming-of-age Disney movie. Wingers, just released from her contract at Georgia Southern in April of 2016, spent the month of May talking with her heavenly father and mulling over whether or not she was going to take up the massive responsibility of being in charge of Bulloch County’s only outlet for club volleyball.
     Finally, God gave her an answer.
     “I told God if you ever want me to have volleyball again to please find a way to give it back to me,” Wingers said. “After a month of praying and going on mission trips, I decided this was my chance to have volleyball back.”
    Instead of picking up the Southern Slammers, Wingers opted to start a new club: Southern Volleyball Academy. This way, Wingers wouldn’t be beholden to the former parents and players of Southern Slammers. She got to play by her own rules because she was the one making them. But therein lied one problem.
    Wingers had no idea how to make her own rules, let alone start a business.
    Wingers had no income. She had no place to live or any capital, but just like in the movies she had a friend, Haley Anderson, to swoop in and help. And of course, no movie is complete without a love interest.
    In steped Ryan Wingers, the Director of Programs and Risk Management at the Georgia Southern Recreation Activity Center. Ryan had been dating Ashley after a mutual student had played matchmaker between the two of them. Most boyfriends  would have questioned his significant other’s sanity had they made the leap to start a business with no support system.
     But Ryan saw the passion in Ashley's eyes and was admittedly in love with the spunky physics instructor. So he decided to pay for Ashley’s gas and food while she was starting the academy, a decision he wouldn’t have thought twice about.
    “When we were engaged it was a no brainer, I wanted to spend my life for her,” Ryan said. “More than anything I wanted her to focus on her passion and not be derailed from that. That’s how I viewed my role.”
    Wingers ran into a number of hiccups along the way, from showing up to the bank with no EIC and her first camp session only seeing two players show up. But Ryan watched in awe as his now wife shrugged off every bump in the road with a smile, never once blaming anyone along the way.
    “You hear a lot about how good guys finish last. It can be hard for females to succeed independently, but she’s doing it now even if it wasn’t on her timeline,” Ryan said. “ She has gotten past a lot of the emotional anger with the frustrations she’s faced and has found a way to be respectful to everyone she’s dealt with along the way. I don’t think everyone appreciates that.”
    From July of 2016 going forward, Wingers has attracted girls from not just Bulloch County but Effingham County as well. After experiencing a disappointing turnout in her first camp session, for Wingers’ next session she hoped for at least six girls to show up — praying for some kind of fruit to spring from the investment she, Ryan and all of her support system had poured into this project.
     24 girls showed up for the eight-week session. And things only kept getting better from there.
    The Southern Volleyball Academy went on to win tournaments in Jacksonville and Atlanta as the year carried on. Wingers’ prowess as a volleyball mind and instructor started to gain traction around the area too, as Southeast Bulloch and Effingham County would hire her as a consultant to run their high school tryouts.
    Even better, as a business Southern Volleyball Academy was running in the black. In one year, Wingers went from unemployed dreamer to the CEO and coach of a tournament winning, profit generating volleyball club. Not Disney, not Dreamworks not any movie studio can script a character like Ashley Wingers because she’s a real life success story.
    However, much like any movie from those studios there has to be a twist. The twist in this story is money and wins aren’t Wingers’ definition of success. She was never in the business of volleyball to win tournaments or make money.
    So why go through all of that in the first place? It all comes back to that fateful day more than five years ago in Jacksonville when Wingers took a sign from God that she needed to live her life on his terms and not her own.
    “I’m here to build character with these girls and make sure they are good people. I don’t care about the wins and money,” Wingers said. “I know I can coach and I know the game of volleyball. The wins will come if the girls want to put the work in. But they’re not teaching kids how to be better people in schools these days, so that’s what I want to do with this club.”
    Wingers genuinely cares about her girls. It was one of the main reasons McIntosh initially wanted her to start a new club. He saw the traits of a legit role model who was helping coach the Southern Slammers. In his words, Wingers “made a connection” to the girls he could never have dreamed of making.
    “She is the role model kids need to see, unlike other people I have worked with,” McIntosh said. “A lot of young coaches want to be a role model on the court but don’t live up to it off the court. She is the same person on and off the court.”
    Wingers is clear about what she wants to do with every player she comes in contact with in the clubs mission statement: “To provide a place for young women to improve volleyball skills and develop strong character to prepare them to be successful.”
    It’s one thing to say you want to build strong character out of girls, but it’s another thing to show it by living your own life as an example. Wingers is that example. From starting with little to nothing a year ago to thriving in a successful business venture now, Wingers is thankful and grateful for her now husband Ryan, Anderson, McIntosh and everyone else who’s helped her along the way — always giving the credit back to God and never herself.
    If that’s not the character — in a movie or anywhere else — you’d want your daughter to take after, you’d be hard pressed to find or write up one better for the girls of Bulloch County to learn by.

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