For Ashtyn Van Dalen, playing on the Lynden girls basketball team is “fun.”
For Ashtyn’s parents, Mike and Raelene Van Dalen, having their daughter be accepted and loved is an answer to prayer.
And for the Lions coach, it’s the way it should be.
“As a Dad, as an ex-teacher, and as a coach, this is a win-win situation,” said Rob Adams. “This is a bigger deal than just hoops.”
What makes it a big deal is that Ashtyn was born developmentally delayed. And while there are lots of stories of special-needs students being team managers and maybe getting into the last minute of the last game of the season as a reward, that isn’t Ashtyn’s story.
She is a full member of the Lynden team. And this is not just any team, but the undefeated, No.1-ranked Class 2A team in the state.
She practices with them, travels with them, suits up and sits on the bench with them, and — yes — she gets in the games just like the rest of them.
“We don’t cut her any slack,” said Adams. “That’s how Mike and Raelene raised her. We’re just reinforcing how the Van Dalen family does their lives. She’s a student-athlete with the same expectations.”
COACHES VS. CANCER: The Lynden girls will host crosstown rival Lynden Christian in a battle for first place in the Northwest Conference on Thursday at 7:15 p.m. The Lynden boys will play at Lynden Christian on Friday at 7:15 p.m. in another Northwest Conference battle between highly ranked teams. Both are part of the NWC’s Coaches vs. Cancer games. Be sure to follow the coverage on WhatcomHoops.com.
Those expectations are there even though Ashtyn is limited physically. So far this season, she’s only scored one basket — that coming Monday night against Lakewood.
But don’t judge Ashtyn by her scoring average.
She’s the team’s most popular player, who gets the biggest cheer from the crowd when she gets in the game. She’s the one who always has a smile on her face whether sitting on the bench or running down the court or giving high fives to her teammates.
“She loves it,” said fellow senior and friend Keylie Hershey. “It’s the best (when she plays). She deserves to be here. We love Ashtyn.”
“We love Ashtyn” and “she deserves it” are common mantras among her teammates, repeated word for word by another senior, Ruby VanderHaak, who grew up with Ashtyn and is perhaps her closest friend on the team.
“Basketball has made it so that I have gotten to know Ashtyn better,” said VanderHaak. “Without basketball I don’t think I would have had this amazing chance to grow so close to Ashtyn.”
VanderHaak said she only has one regret: “Sometimes I wish I could go back and make sure we had a 20-point lead in every game so she could get in.”
That attitude says something not only about how Ashtyn has affected her teammates, but how remarkable those teammates are.
“We want to exalt them,” said Raelene. “What the team did for Ashtyn has saved her life, made high school amazing for her. They’re a really talented basketball team … and they allow her to be a part of that.”
Said Mike: “We’ve prayed that God would put individuals in our children’s lives and influence them. We’re seeing God work through this. It is an answered prayer.”
Ashtyn started playing basketball as a freshman and was part of the Lynden C team and JV team her first three years. And when she played with the varsity last summer, Adams and the other coaches saw that it was a good experience not only for Ashtyn but for her teammates.
So, they put her on varsity. Not that they really had a choice. “If we hadn’t, the other seniors would have come in and told us to do it,” said Adams.
So far this season, Ashtyn has seen action in almost every game.
Against Squalicum last week, she went in with four and a half minutes remaining and played the rest of the game. She ran the floor, played defense and took three shots. And the Storm players played just as hard against her as they did the other Lions.
“When (other teams) ask about her, we tell them, ‘just play,’” said Adams. “We don’t ask them to do anything different. It helps make people more aware.”
And just for the record, Squalicum coach Ray Ootsey — himself a special ed teacher — said he was excited to see a story about Ashtyn.
But perhaps more important is the affect having a developmentally delayed teammate has had on the entire program.
Adams said Ashtyn interacts with the C team, JV and varsity players and that they all love her, even those who could be on varsity in her place. He said that her positive attitude even helped him in the midst of the pressure at last year’s state tournament.
“I looked at her and she has a big grin or a pat on the back, and I think, ‘Why am I so uptight about this?’ She’s pumped to be here,” he said. “That’s what it’s supposed to be about.”
Watching how Adams and especially the other seniors have embraced their classmate has made the entire team — and maybe the entire school — realize that being the star or leading the team in scoring is not as important as being a good teammate or caring about others.
“I can’t speak enough about this group,” said Adams. “It would be really easy to make it about themselves rather than others. (But) it’s not just about Ashtyn. When you’re helping one teammate, you can’t help but be there for other teammates.”
Perhaps the biggest compliment was when Adams — who also was a special ed teacher for 18 years — had Ashtyn join the varsity in cutting down the nets last season after Lynden won the bi-district tournament.
What about this year? What if the Lions return to the Class 2A state tournament?
“If we manage to get to state, she’ll suit up,” assured Adams. “She’s on varsity.”
Maybe it’s best to let Ashtyn have the final word about her team.
“My teammates are amazing and cool,” she said. “We’re family. I have their back, and they have mine.”