PILOT MOUNTAIN — Few high school swimming programs in North Carolina have been as impressive as East Surry’s girls program over the past two seasons.
In both 2015-16 and 2016-17, the Lady Cardinals were the highest-scoring traditional 1A program among those participating the NCHSAA 1A/2A state swimming finals, held both years at the Cary Aquatic Center. Both seasons saw East Surry claim the Northwest 1A Conference swimming title, and then finish first at regionals before holding their own with the likes of 2A power Carrboro and the powerful charter school teams such as Pine Lake Prep and Raleigh Charter. Last February, the Lady Cardinals finished fourth overall, wit those three schools the only ones to outscore East Surry.
Right in the middle of those achievements was senior Ashley Hicks, who qualified in four events at the state finals and was part of East Surry’s bronze-medal winning team in the 400 freestyle relay. She swam the lead leg for the team, and was followed by teammates Anne-Louise Tunstall, sister Julie Hicks, and Avery Tucker in holding off five other teams in the finals for third place. The elder Hicks was also part of a 200 free relay team that scored a substantial number of points toward East’s total of 193. The next-best traditional 1A school finished in 20th place.
“It felt good to be a senior and finish the way we did,” said Hicks. “Swimming with my teammates this season was really the highlight of my time here. We had a really fun year.”
Ashley Hicks’ excellent performance in Cary and throughout her four years as a member of the East Surry swimming program caught the eyes of several college recruiters, and on Tuesday afternoon, her career took the next step when she signed a National Letter of Intent to join the swim team at Mars Hill University next year.
Mars Hill’s swimming programs are members of the Appalachian Swimming Conference in the NCAA Division II ranks. The Lions’ swimming program finished fifth in the ASC during the most recent season, which ran from late September through February.
“She submitted some interest forms to some schools, and we had a girl on the PAC Swim Team go there last year,” said East Surry head coach Leah Tunstall, who coached Hicks both with the Lady Cardinals and, along with her husband Jeff, on the PAC (North Piedmont Aquatic Club) team. “Ashley decided to take some trips, and on an official visit, she pretty much decided that Mars Hill was where she wanted to go.”
“I liked the atmosphere and the coaches, the people there were just so nice,” said Hicks, who will study nursing at Mars Hill. “I’m very excited to have the opportunity.”
Hicks took up swimming when she was eight years old and signed up as a member of the PAC team. She has been a member of that team for the last 10 years, and joined Leah Tunstall’s East Surry team four years ago. When she began competing at the high school level, she quickly discovered that she liked the competition and wanted to continue at the next level after graduation.
“I started in summer league swimming, and I found out about PAC when I was about eight years old and just stuck with it,” she said. “I’ve always thought about swimming in college, but when I started high school swimming, I definitely knew I wanted to swim in college.”
Her coach was proud to see that dream come true on Tuesday.
“It’s a celebration for years of hard work and sacrifice. You have all of these dreams as you go along, and you’re not sure how it’s going to work out,” said Leah Tunstall. “Then you have a day like this and it’s all worthwhile. We’re all really proud of Ashley and we think she will have a great career.”