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Logan • There are taller keepers in the college ranks. Some have a longer reach or a more intimidating physical presence.
But Ashlyn Mulford, Utah State's 5-foot-5 senior goalkeeper, can stand on her line with a look in her eye that gives her opponents a direct message: She's not afraid of them.
"She's just flat-out fearless," coach Heather Cairns said. "What she lacks in reach, she can make up with her quickness and explosiveness. She can use her technique to get to some balls that other keepers her size couldn't."
Mulford doesn't blink on the field because she's learned over the years there aren't many challenges she can't face.
She constantly was an underdog on the field while growing up in West Valley City. She had to beg her father to give her a shot at playing goal. In high school, her Cyprus Pirates team never claimed many victories, and she had to learn to be composed under fire.
The past three years haven't exactly been easy, either. Mulford spent those seasons backing up Molli Merrill, who earned first team all-WAC as a senior. And although she is a naturally upbeat person, she acknowledges not playing was tough.
"Sitting on the bench for three years, it's fun and everything, but you never feel like you're contributing to the team," she said. "I came into this year with the attitude that I really want that spot."
It was simply inherited: Mulford had to earn it. Freshman keeper Jeannie Woller provided immediate competition, and another year as a backup was not out of the question for the senior.
Coaches were looking for a leader, someone who could command the back line for the Aggies while also projecting a steady calm. It wasn't Mulford's strength, but she worked at it.
"She's always been a tremendous shot-stopper, she's always had a lot of courage," Cairns said. "But where we've seen her improve is with that calmness. As a goalkeeper, you let in goals sometimes, even though you'd prefer shutouts. You can't let that rock you, and she's done fantastic with that."
The challenge of winning the starting job has inspired more growth in Mulford than many on the coaching staff could have imagined. The Utah State defense has become one of the toughest units in the nation this season.
The Aggies were second in the NCAA in save percentage entering the WAC tournament this week, stopping 89.5 percents of their opponents' shots. Mulford is ranked fifth in save percentage with an 89.6 mark, and she's allowing an average of less than half a goal a game.
With Mulford and a lockdown back line, Utah State has accrued eight total shutouts while gliding to a regular-season WAC title. The Aggies will rely on a solid defensive game by Mulford to try to get back to the NCAA tournament this year.
"When you're actually on the field and putting in your best effort … it's just an awesome feeling," Mulford said. "Being able to actually help my team is amazing. I get pumped."
It's hard to tell the two goalkeepers ever had to compete for the starting job. Mulford takes time to mentor Woller, mindful that she could be the starter for the next few years.
When Mulford was hit with a red card that had her sitting out the Denver game, she was one of Woller's loudest supporters on the sideline as the Aggies shut out the Pioneers.
"I think Ashlyn's journey is one of a tough kid," Cairns said. "That struggle it didn't come easy for her. She possesses a tremendous amount of leadership. … She gives respect to everyone and demands it from everyone."
Ashlyn Mulford at a glance
Has notched 7 shutouts this year
Ranked No. 5 in NCAA save percentage (.896)
Ranked No. 8 in NCAA goals against average (.49)