BRIDGEPORT, Conn. (AP) — Maryland’s players are preparing to play in the Sweet 16 on Saturday and thinking of a 7-year-old girl they consider a teammate.
Ashlyn Barrett, who suffers from muscular dystrophy and several other serious ailments, can’t make it to Connecticut from Annapolis, Maryland, for the game with Oregon. But, the team will send her a message in the pregame warm-ups by wearing shirts that read “Ashlyn’s Army.”
They sought and received special permission from the NCAA for the gesture.
“This whole organization is just like a big family and we look at Ashlyn like she’s our little sister because she is our little sister,” guard Shatori Walker-Kimbrough said. “She sat and signed our national letter of intent just like all of us did, so she’s just as important to the team as we are. I don’t think she realizes how much she means to our team, just coming in smiling every day, when we know she’s facing challenges every single day. And that means the world to us because if she can do that, we can do what we do and push through anything.”
Ashlyn “signed” with the team two years ago as part of a program called Project Impact, which links seriously ill children to athletic programs.
Her mother said they family expected there would be some autographs, maybe a few photos.
Instead, she said the experience has been life changing. Ashlyn goes to practices, games and has received numerous visits from team members. They even gave her a piece of the net from last year’s Big Ten championship.
“Before, it was pretty boring and depressing in our life,” Jen Barrett said. “She could never be a part of a team or have the opportunity, like her sister, to have her father coach her. Ashlyn now has a team. They embrace her as a teammate and they’ve become family.”
Ashlyn can be having a painful day and everything changes when she connects with her teammates, her mom said. She was having such a day before the Terps second-round game with West Virginia. But she refused to stay home and instead put on a shirt that read “Losing Is Not An Option” and traveled to College Park for the 83-56 win.
The team is staying in touch with Ashlyn this weekend through texts and video chats. They were chatting with her Thursday as the Barrett family attended a fundraiser to help pay their medical bills and watched as the family was surprised with an all-expense paid trip to Disney World.
But Maryland coach Brenda Frese, whose young son Tyler battled pediatric cancer, says this has not been a one-way relationship. Ashlyn has taught them some very valuable life lessons about perseverance and having a positive attitude.
“The initial (idea) was obviously wanting her to be a part of our team and being able to give her an experience back that I know having gone through, having my own son, when he was sick, and the hospital visits and kind of what that relief meant,” she said. “For our team, they’re inspired every day by her. They know how sick of a little girl she is and everything that she’s been through.”
Ashlyn would love to go to the Final Four, should the team get that far, her mother said.
But the family can’t afford it. The medical bills are astronomical, she said. Her husband, Justin, works as an exterminator, and is out of work during the winter. Jen had to leave her job at the U.S. Naval Academy to care for her daughter.
Right now, every cent they take in is going toward bills and an effort to send Ashlyn to Boston to see some new doctors and get some experimental treatments. The family has set up a GoFundMe page to help raise money.
But Ashlyn isn’t worried about all of that right now. She’s concentrating on Saturday and what her team needs to do to win, and what she can do to help them.
“If she can watch the game, and cheer them on to a successful finish when the buzzer goes off, she feels like she’s done her job as well,” Jen Barrett said.
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