Toni Lashley: So close

Toni Lashley: So close
CSU forward Toni Lashley and Citadel keeper Naomi Carter duel in front of goal on Sept. 8. The Citadel prevailed, 2-1.

CSU forward Toni Lashley and Citadel keeper Naomi Carter duel in front of goal on Sept. 8. The Citadel prevailed, 2-1.

Charleston Southern forward Toni Lashley has scored plenty of goals over the years — 33 so far in her four-year college career,  54 in her junior and senior years of high school — but lately it seems like the only goals she can see when she lies down to sleep are the ones she didn’t score.

“One’s been haunting me,” she said. “The Citadel game. Why couldn’t I just tuck that one in the back of the net? It’s so simple. So close.”

That’s a goal-scorer’s drive.

In a disappointing fall for the Lowcountry’s four collegiate soccer programs, Lashley has been one of few bright spots. With eight goals and three assists in 15 starts, the senior from Waxhaw, N.C., has more goals and more points than any other local collegiate player.  Her closest competitor for the Lowcountry scoring lead, The Citadel’s Mariana Garcia, has been stuck on six goals since a knee injury felled her back on Sept. 19. She’s currently ranked second in the Big South in both goals and points (19)

Even without the statistics, the 5-3 Lashley would probably stand out as one of the most watchable players in Charleston soccer. A relentless attacker who makes run after exhausting run to open up space for the Bucs’ attack, Lashley’s top-end speed is obviously superior to the women around her.

Even when she doesn't connect, Lashley's athleticism draws defenders.

Even when she doesn’t connect, Lashley’s athleticism draws defenders.

But it’s her strength and athletic flair that seal the deal. Near the end of a Sept. 20 home loss to USC Upstate, Lashley’s spectacular leaping attempt at an aerial volley failed to connect with the too-high crossing ball — but it so drew so much stunned Spartan attention that teammate Chelsea Frankeny wound up with a great chance. Only a heroic save by the Spartan keeper prevented the equalizer.

For Lashley, though, every chance that doesn’t produce a goal winds up in her scorer’s inventory of What Could Have Been. What’s fresh in her mind aren’t the balls she put in, but “the goals I haven’t been making. Because it’s just been right there,” she said. “It’s just so simple, and it drives me crazy. Even my assists, the passes I give to other people, it’s not even just me. It’s just scoring in general.”

Trained from birth

Toni Lashley still benefits from all the running her father made her do as a kid, but it did leave a mark. "Now I hate running distance."

Toni Lashley still benefits from all the running her father made her do as a kid, but it did leave a mark. “Now I hate running distance.”

The daughter of a Jamaican-born mother and a Tar Heel father who played college basketball and spent 20 years in the U.S. Coast Guard, Lashley grew up playing basketball and soccer in a rural section of Union County, N.C. Her same-age stepbrother, Dylan Hunter, was her playmate, training partner and competitor from elementary school on.

“My dad, there were days when he told me and my brother, ‘Don’t come inside, drop your bookbags at the top of the driveway and start running. And I’ll tell you when to stop.’ He was trying to train us as if we were going to be Olympians. The training he used to do for us, just on his own – not necessarily soccer training, but just running – he would time us in the two-mile, time us in the mile, every single day.”

In fifth grade, Lashley could run a mile in less than six minutes.

“Dad didn’t believe in any kind of weakness. He was in the military for 20 years. Coast Guard. And a big basketball guy. After we were done running, we’d come home, have to shoot, you know, 50 bank-shots, 50 under the basket, 50 layups, 50 everything. It was kinda crazy when I was growing up. It’s kinda funny now.”

Lashley's early season success came at a price: "I feel like I get hit by a car every time I've been playing lately," she said in September. "My entire body is sore, and I don't know what to do about it. I honestly feel like I've been getting beat-up more this year than I ever have."

Lashley’s early season success came at a price: “I feel like I get hit by a car every time I’ve been playing lately,” she said in September. “My entire body is sore, and I don’t know what to do about it. I honestly feel like I’ve been getting beat-up more this year than I ever have.”

The combination of her athleticism and fitness and her father’s personal coaching made Lashley a force on the basketball court. But as she gravitated toward soccer — a sport her father didn’t know as well — he hired her personal soccer trainers and kept her busy with club teams. And her future in sports looked bright… until her sophomore year in high school.

“I wasn’t able to stay on the court, ” she said. “I was constantly tired, I was constantly bending over. But meanwhile at that age I still had a little six-pack, I was still athletic-looking, so they were wondering ‘What’s wrong with you? Why can’t you run up and down the court?’ So my junior year I wound up going to a doctor and they found out that I had, like, severe anemia. So I started taking iron pills every day.”

Result? In her junior year she scored 28 goals. To prove it was no fluke, she came back her senior year and scored 26. Lashley had always been a good basketball player. but suddenly she was a break-out soccer prospect. “I wasn’t even going to play collegiately in any sports. I was going to play intramurals and just go to school. And then I realized, I can actually do something with this.”

March 27 Toni Lashley attacks

Lashley streaks through the College of Charleston defense in March. The Cougars were one of the teams that showed an interest in her as a high school senior.

Kentucky, Arkansas and Appalachian State made her offers. She took an unofficial visit to Western Carolina. Even the College of Charleston contacted her. But CSU offered her the best deal: A partial scholarship that the school upgraded her sophomore season.

“It was just a good situation. My dad liked coach (Eric Terrill) a lot, and we thought it was a good fit for me. It was Charleston, and we’d been coming to Charleston for like 10 years of my life for like, Mother’s Day.

“Everything just kind of fell into place. I got to keep my number. Obviously I’m right by the beach, which is a huge thing for me, because I love being in Charleston. I really enjoyed the coach and the girls on the team… and that was really it. Because honestly, I like a bigger campus. I didn’t like that aspect of this school. But everything else over-rode all of that, and I still looked at it like a great opportunity.”

College and beyond

Lashley presses upfield against The Citadel. Despite her success, she criticizes her skills on the ball. "My footwork is not what it needs to be, and I'm fully aware of that. I try to make up for that by being smart, being smart on the ball, trying to get myself open for my teammates."

Lashley presses upfield against The Citadel. Despite her success, she criticizes her skills on the ball. “My footwork is not what it needs to be, and I’m fully aware of that. I try to make up for that by being smart, being smart on the ball, trying to get myself open for my teammates.”

Lashley scored six goals and notched 15 points in an explosive freshman season that earned her a spot on the Big South All-Freshman squad. Her goal total rose to eight in her sophomore year, and as a junior she notched 11 goals and an assist en route to a place on the All-Conference first team.

Her performance won her a spot on the summer roster of the Santa Clarita Blue Heat, which plays in the USL W League, the second tier of North American women’s soccer. Though an injury forced her to return home early, Lashley reported to August practice for the Bucs in top shape.

“I came in this year more fit than I’ve ever been,” she said. “So coach is really looking to me to stay on the field at all times. Moreso than ever before. Because before I would have to come out because I was so tired. Now he’s realizing I can play a full half, if need be, and I’ve been doing that. It’s been trying on my body, but I’m getting used to it.”

Instead of pushing her to get fitter, Terrill instead asked her to step up her role as a leader. “That’s the No. 1 thing he’s told me. I’m not a captain this year, for his own reasons, but he’s also told me, ‘Yeah, you’re not a captain, but you know you’re a leader on the field. You make sure you continue to be a leader on the field.’

Lashley goes down hard against USC Upstate. The senior forward has been a marked woman in 2013.

Lashley goes down hard against USC Upstate. The senior forward has been a marked woman in 2013.

“He was like, ‘If you want to be Big South Player of the Year, you need to do it.’ That’s my goal for this year.

“I’ve been the first-team all -conference and the second-team all-conference, made the all-freshman team, and honestly this just feels like the next step. It was right at my finger-tips last year, and the girl who beat me out had two goals, or maybe one goal, more than I did. So it’s right there.”

Despite her stellar senior year, Lashley looks like an underdog for that award headed into the final four regular-season matches of 2013. She’s within striking distance of her 2012 scoring mark, but her hot start to the season ran into a seven-match midseason goal drought. She broke out of that funk with a two-goal performance at UNC-Asheville on Oct. 5, and has scored in two of the three matches since. The Bucs have gone 3-1-0 since that trip to Asheville, including a 3-0 dismantling of Winthrop, one of the better teams in the Big South.

Still, with eight goals in 15 starts, she’ll need a torrid run of form to catch up to current conference points leader, Krystyna Freda, a Winthrop junior who has tallied 13 goals and 30 points in 13 appearances. Lashley could figure in the Player of the Year balloting without leading the conference in goals, but with her Bucs hovering around the middle of the table with a 3-4-0 conference record (6-8-1 overall), she’ll probably need some numbers on her side.

Defending against The Citadel.

Defending against The Citadel.

Regardless of honors, Lashley’s career at CSU is drawing to its conclusion. She’s on track to graduate in December 2014 with bachelor’s degree in communications, and while she’s interested in sports broadcasting, she’s also an entrepreneurial thinker who intends to spend most of her adult life running her own small business.

Not so long ago, the end of NCAA eligibility meant the end of soccer for women athletes. But Lashley might not be ready to give up the game just yet. Her W League experience in California this summer convinced her she has the ability to go pro. “I really can, if I want to pursue this. I can go farther with it.”

One possibility would be to try her luck in an overseas league.  She’s thinking about giving London a try: one of her former coaches — and most of her mother’s family — live there. But the National Women’s Soccer League, which just completed its first season of play, is also a possibility. And though she still critiques herself as “more of an athlete than a soccer player,” Lashley thinks she’s got what it takes to compete at the top level of North American women’s soccer. If she really wants to pursue it.

But that’s for later. With three road games left on the schedule, and her “home” swan-song at Patriots Point against Gardner-Webb on Saturday, Oct. 26 (7 p.m.), Lashley has other goals to pursue. And they are so, so close.

TOP IMAGE: Senior forward Toni Lashley on the campus of Charleston Southern University in early September.  Dan Conover photos.