NIANTIC -- Little worked against Ashley Ford.

Teams often tried double -- and even triple -- teams against Tri-City/Sangamon Valley's 6-foot-2 center.

Usually it was all in vain.

Ford expected nothing less and dominated the front court this season to pick up H&R Macon County Girls Basketball Player of the Year.

"I knew it was going to be a tough one and there's going to be a target on my back a little bit," Ford said. "But I worked really hard this season and off-season before and built myself mentally and physically."

She was the epicenter of Tri-City's offense and defense and despite the heavier resistance, she either surpassed or matched last year's impressive numbers and averaged 18.7 points and 9.1 rebounds per game.

"Those numbers were a lot harder to put up than last year," Ford said. "I had to work more for it I guess."

Ford and Tri-City rolled to a 24-2 season and raked in the program's first Macon County, Sangamon County and regional tournament titles along the way.

"She just got more physical and didn't take a lot from other people," Tri-City coach Tony Nika said of Ford, "and decided, 'Hey, I know I'm the top dog here. I'm going to go right at them and dominate in the post.'

"One team even had a girl who just stood in front of her the whole time. It's just a testament of her hard work she put in all summer and spring."

She quickly sharpened her toughness and resolve immediately after her junior year.

Ford, who hails from Illiopolis and attends Sangamon Valley High School, joined Peoria's Illinois Irish in March and stuck with the AAU program all the way through the summer.

It required immense sacrifice and dedication that included a two-hour drive twice a week on school nights.

"It was hard, but it was a lot of fun and dedication to get my schoolwork done right after school and then head on over to Peoria for practice," Ford said.

Ford had done travel ball since seventh grade, but she called the Irish the best summer experience she had and frequently traveled around the Midwest.

She sparred against the best talent in the region, including Indiana, and developed grit along the way.

"It kind of took me awhile to kind of figure out how to be aggressive because I was never really an aggressive person at all when I was younger," Ford said. "Learning how to be aggressive was the hardest thing for me and you really need to do that in basketball, especially in the post. It was hard for me to figure out how the post game works: how to post up, how to box out."

Junior teammate Aubrey Hunt also helped out in open gyms during the off-season and drills during practice.

It was a stark contrast of styles -- Ford's height against Hunt's strength.

"We were pretty much partners for every drill," Ford said of Hunt. "Everything we did we were really pushing each other and helping each other get stronger and better and quicker. Every single aspect, we were there battling each other and making sure we weren't goofing off."

Hunt had a formidable presence herself and averaged 12.2 points and 9.2 rebounds per game this season.

It was still a bit overwhelming practicing and posting up against Ford, who always altered shots and averaged 2.1 blocks per game.

"She was obviously a lot taller than me, so practices were not always the best with her because she blocked my shots 24/7," Hunt said. "But she always pushed everybody and was a good leader on and off the floor.

"I would try something new and she would just block my shot. I'd go, 'Oh, I'm not doing that again.' "

Ford perhaps started out her high school career like a tall, skinny tree. But Hunt and Nika watched her evolve into a stronger and more confident post player.

Especially this season.

Her arsenal was complete with a lethal turnaround jumper and not only just finesse to get to the hoop but also strength to finish.

"A breeze would knock her over and she was real raw," Nika said of Ford's freshman year. "She had the tools, but she was really raw and didn't have much of a post game yet"

Now she's off to NAIA Olivet Nazarene in Bourbonnais, a run-and-gun program that finished 20-12 this past season.

"From her freshman year to senior year, her growth was dramatic and the scary part is I don't think she's reached her potential yet," Nika said. "When she gets into college, she's going to take a jump where she's just going to be a phenomenal player at the collegiate level."

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Sports Writer

Sports Writer for the Herald & Review

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