October 20, 2020 – By NJP
We get to research and interact with so many members of the NJ volleyball community and are always looking for interesting stories about current and past players as well as coaches and club and school leadership. So many times we want to help tell their story, especially when we feel the story will help inspire or motivate other members of the community. This is certainly one of those times when we can help paint a picture of a genuine role model that quietly leads by example and helps others realize their potential.
Ashley Cornett may be the more familiar name to the volleyball community despite now being married and being Ashley Fitzsimmons for the past 5 years. She has a wonderful story that many girls in the state dream of achieving. Ashley had amazing success as a student athlete in high school as well as in college. She worked hard for both team and individual recognition and accomplishments. She achieved a PhD and has the ability to make a major impact on the world through her work and profession. Ashley is active in giving back to her volleyball community and being a leader in that regard. And lastly, Ashley has built a relationship with a special partner and is living the American dream with 2 young kids while providing strong family values and melding their future impact on the world. It’s a feel good story at a time when it is greatly needed in our world. She clearly provides the example to our student athletes that they can achieve whatever they put their minds to.
Typically, keys to success are driven by achieving life balance. Ashley appears to have the market on this topic. Balance can be self-driven but Ashley gives recognition to the support she receives from her husband Brian. Ashley is the Club Director at Cut Shot Volleyball Club as well as an assitant coach for the Montclair State University Red Hawks. This would not be possible without Brian’s enablement. All the small things he does can make big things happen in the lives of many student athletes.
Being the Director of a non-profit entity such as Cut Shot VBC can also be a big challenge, especially with everything that is going inside and outside of Ashley’s world. But as you read our interview, it draws you in to what Cut Shot has to offer, from leadership to philosophy, and identifies as a place you want to be or want your child to be.
Here is our interview with Ms. Cornett-Fitzsimmons…
Tell us a bit about yourself, Ashley?
My name is Ashley Cornett-Fitzsimmons. I grew up in Hawthorne NJ where I attended Hawthorne High School. My parents are both natives of Hawthorne. My father attended Don Bosco Prep and my mom attended Hawthorne High School. I come from a family of athletes who traditionally played and excelled in basketball. At Hawthorne, I played volleyball and basketball for all 4 years. I got into volleyball because of my older sister, Heather. She also played at Hawthorne and at Fairleigh Dickinson for 2 seasons. In high school, I was part of the 2001 State Champions Group II where my high school team went 31-0. We were also 3-time Passaic County Champions and 4-time Conference Champions (BPSL). After high school, I continued my volleyball career at Ramapo College (Mahwah, NJ). I was the four-year starting setter for that program. After Ramapo, I went on to pursue my PhD in Molecular Biology from Rutgers Graduate School of Biomedical Science and earned my doctorate in 2014. On a more personal note, I married my husband, Brian, in 2015. We have two beautiful girls together Kennedy (age 3) and Caelyn (age 4 months) and live in North Haledon.
You had a standout high school volleyball experience at Hawthorne. What is your best memory of that time?
I actually have two really great memories from high school. The first was winning Group II States my sophomore year. We went in as the underdog to Union Catholic and came out on top. I wasn’t part of the starting line-up but to be a part of that team and supporting from the bench was AMAZING.
My second was a bitter sweet memory. In my junior year season, during the Passaic County finals (held at Clifton High School), my parents were unable to attend. My grandmother had passed away a few days prior, and they had to go to the services. My sister, Heather and I were supposed to attend as well, but when the team was practicing a line-up without the two us in it, we knew that the team needed us to win and my family supported this decision. On top of that, since my parents had never missed a high school game before, the other parents of our team put a picture of my parent’s in the stands so they could be there in ‘spirit’. We ended up winning the game and my coach dedicated the win to my grandma.
Another cute anecdote was from my coach, Andrea Marino. She was VERY superstitious. The year we went 31-0, we each had a small piece of candy before every match. This tradition was carried on for my entire time at Hawthorne. (It must have worked because we were 4-time league champs and 3-time county champs).
Tell us about your college career as a setter at Ramapo College where you amassed almost 3,000 assists?
I loved my experience at Ramapo. Unlike the record success I had in high school, I ended up going to a program that was pretty much .500 before I got there. Each year, we got better and Coach recruited more talented athletes to round out our roster. I felt extremely important during my tenure there, as I always felt Coach recruited players to build an offense around my setting style. We would have been more successful during my senior season but had a few season-changing injuries.
Another cool award I earned at Ramapo was NJAIAW Female Athlete of the Year (2008). The reason this award was so cool was because I won the same award in high school for Hawthorne (2004). It was a very proud personal athletic accomplishment I had.
What motivated you to become involved in the non-for-profit Cut Shot Volleyball Club while still in college?
I started coaching for Cut Shot as a freshman at Ramapo. The assistant coach, Jen Scott, at that time was part of the Cut Shot program. She had asked if I was interested and I certainly was. After coaching for about 6 years, I took on more administrative responsibilities with the club and became acting director about 8 years ago. Cut Shot was one of the original clubs in northern New Jersey having been starting in the early 1990’s, so I basically took over from my predecessor.
As the Director of CSVC, a 501c7, what challenges do you have in running the program?
The biggest challenge is definitely balancing a budget but still being cost conscious enough to not deter away athletes from trying out. Club volleyball is a huge expense, but if the end-goal is to play in college, it is definitely worth it.
You balance your incredibly important work as a Scientist at BioLegend, a company that focuses on a wide range of immunology, stem cells, and oncology research with running a non-profit and coaching at Cut Shot at the same time. How do you balance your time toward your two passions?
I guess I have always been an anomaly being a ‘smart jock’. I excelled in Science/Math in school and that aptitude ended up being a great career option for me. My role at BioLegend as an application scientist is really exciting because I get to educate research labs on BioLegend products and provide technical support in their experiments. Coaching is just something I could never give up. I am just fortunate enough that I have a very supportive husband that enables me to continue to coach the sport I love and work full-time. If it wasn’t for him, I would not be able to do both.
You are an amazing role model for your girls at the CSVC and your leadership by example is an outstanding differentiation for the club. Tell us about some of your Cut Shot alumni that have gone on to life success.
I have had so many great kids come and play for me throughout my 15 seasons. The biggest compliment I think we get is when those athletes want to come back and coach for your organization. Almost all of our coaches have at one point played for our club.
Tell us more about your current Cut Shot players and top prospects?
Unfortunately, due to COVID-19 we do not have an active 18U roster.
How does coaching compare to your playing days?
The greatest aspect of coaching is when you see it ‘click’ in a player’s brain. It is really great to feel like you have made an impact in their process of becoming a better volleyball player. The toughest part about coaching is that you can’t play for them so there are certain things that are just out of your control from the side line. I still am able to play in the GEVA Women’s A/AA tournaments which is nice for itching the volleyball ‘bug’ I have.
What word of encouragement or inspiration can you offer current high school level players?
If you want to continue to play at the next level or be more competitive in high school, commit to purpose in practice and work hard at your craft.
What is the biggest challenge that you have as a club volleyball coach?
Competing for kids. Northern New Jersey (specifically Bergen county) is inundated with clubs. If I had it my way, we would combine clubs with similar philosophies and make one super club. This would also make us more competitive at Qualifiers and other national tournaments.
How would you describe your coaching style? What kind of players do best with your coaching style?
I would say I am tough, but in a good way. I use the opportunities in practice to be strict with expectations and let that serve as the place to fix mistakes and make technical corrections. During game time, my job is to provide them with specific feedback that they can change in that set, or help them navigate weaknesses of the other team. I try to be very even-keeled from the side line. High School Female athlete’s (having been one) are emotional roller coasters. What they need from the side-line is stability and a sense of calm. If I freak out on them, it will only make matters worse.
I also am big on asking why. I’ll ask the team before start a drill or in the middle of it, why are we doing this or what are you gaining from this? So they always understand my drill design. If they don’t buy in to what they are doing, they won’t work hard or have purpose.
Are there any rule changes that you would like to see to better prepare NJ High School students for college?
I would like to go to best of 5 (with the 5th as a deciding set) to better prepare them for length of collegiate matches. Or at least change county/state tournaments to that format.