PROFILE: Sarah Ashlee Barker: SEC-Bound Basketball Star

Story by Alec Etheredge

Photos by Keith McCoy

Two weeks after a second surgery on her left knee, Sarah Ashlee Barker was crying in her room at home. “Why is this happening to me when I should be on the basketball court with my varsity teammates?” she wondered. After all, it’s not often a Berry Middle School eighth grader like her earns a spot on the high school varsity team.

Flash forward two-and-a-half years, and Barker, now a junior at Spain Park, persevered through ups and downs of battling back from those two surgeries and discouragement on the court, and she has committed to the University of Georgia to play women’s basketball at the collegiate level. “I would have never thought my eighth-grade year I would be going to play Division I basketball after being out an entire year,” she says. “Not many people get to continue playing the sport at that level after having the injuries I’ve had, so I just count my blessings.”

Many people know Sarah Ashlee Barker’s name because of her dad Jay Barker, who won the 1992 National Championship as the quarterback at the University of Alabama. Others know her as the twin to brother Harrison Barker, who is a quarterback on the Jaguars’ football team. But over the last four years, it’s become evident she is trying to make sure people know her own name for the legacy she is creating.

Young Phenom

After playing three sports growing up, a sixth-grade Barker was starting to figure out that basketball was her one true love in sports. It quickly showed on the court. That’s when Spain Park head girls basketball coach Mike Chase first took notice of her talent. “He actually saw me at a boys’ basketball practice,” Barker says. “I was playing with my twin brother because I used to play on his boys basketball teams, and Coach Chase came up and introduced himself to me. I was like, ‘Why is the head varsity coach coming to introduce himself to me?’” That’s when Barker got her first chance as Chase was working with some Berry sixth-graders on fundamentals after school and got to know her. “When she transitioned into seventh grade, I already knew the type of talent that she was,” he recalls.

Barker spent her entire seventh-grade year on the middle school team, showing the talent she was capable of producing with her focus on basketball. Chase was so impressed that at the end of her seventh-grade year, he brought her over to practice with the high school team. “That’s when we really got close,” she says. “Playing up with varsity that summer and learning from him gave me confidence.” Chase says he was really looking to bring her up to play full-time varsity as an eighth grader at Berry, but that’s when misfortune arrived.

Down, but not out

When her knee gave out that year, Barker was faced with a test much more difficult than any opponent she had faced on the court, and one she underestimated. She had her first knee surgery in December of 2015. “We went into the surgery knowing there was a 50-50 chance it would work,” Barker recalls. “It was an easy 30-minute surgery compared to cutting out the bone in my leg, which would have been a four-hour surgery. So we took that chance.”

Two months later, she learned the surgery was unsuccessful and had to go back under for a second surgery in February 2016, this time for the major four-hour operation. “I was out of school for two weeks after that surgery and would go to my room to just break down emotionally all the time and just ask, ‘Why is this happening?” Barker recalls. “All I had to go back to was God does everything for a reason. This is him teaching me a lesson on what’s coming in the future.”

Following the two surgeries, the real battle began. Barker not only had to get back on the basketball floor, but also back into basketball shape to be able to play at a competitive level again. She struggled to get the words out of how difficult the rehabilitation process was. “I didn’t really know that it was going to be that hard trying to get back into things,” she says. “I was out of shape, I was tired all the time, and my legs were sore because I didn’t walk for like six months,” she recalls.

Spending those six months on crutches impacted not only her strength but also her mental approach. She wanted to be able to jump back in and compete at a high level quickly, but often her body wouldn’t let her. “She had some really good moments, but also some bad moments when she was a ninth grader,” Chase says. “She went through a lot of ups and downs that year. I could tell you some stories, but you probably couldn’t write them. But she always fought through all of those down times and now she is better for it.”

With that struggle, Barker was able to rely on Chase to believe in her and help her get back to the athlete she’s capable of being. “Through all of my difficult times, he was there for me,” Barker says. “He helped me get stronger and understand that everything was happening for a reason and that I was going to get past it. Him taking time out of his day to do that really had a big impact on me.”

That impact helped earn Barker’s trust, which is what ultimately helped her turn the corner. “I would go in and out of having bad games and good games my freshman year, which was frustrating just because I knew what I was capable of doing, but my body wasn’t up to speed with my mind,” she says. “He always pulled me aside and told me I was going to be okay, and that I was where I should be less than a year off of two knee surgeries.”

It didn’t help that she was competing against varsity level players that were at least two years her senior either, but Chase continued to work her and get her back into basketball shape. 

Her choice

With her confidence slowly coming back, Barker started clicking at the end of her freshman basketball season, just as she’d hit the one-year mark since her second major knee surgery. That team would go to the state championship before losing to crosstown-rival Hoover in overtime of the title game. “That’s when you saw how special of a player she can be,” Chase says. “She used that to transition into her sophomore year, which is when she took off.”

During her sophomore season, Barker helped lead the Jaguars on a redemption path back to the state championship game. There they got revenge for the heartbreak from the year before by winning the 2017-18 state championship with a final score of 56-26 over McGill-Toolen.

Barker ended the season averaging 14 points, 9.1 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 1.9 steals and 1.3 blocks per game, earning her All-County and All-State honors. And colleges soon took note.

Starting in December and January, less than two years off of her two major knee surgeries, Barker was picking up offers from SEC schools to play basketball collegiately on a full ride.

Eventually, high-profile offers became more frequent, and Barker narrowed down her college choices to Alabama, Auburn and Georgia—a decision that weighed heavily on her. “These coaches pour so much time and energy into recruiting you that you feel bad having to tell them no,” Barker says.

That led to emotional interactions with both head coaches from Alabama and Auburn when she had to sit down to tell them no. “I got choked up with both of them because I didn’t want to let anybody down,” she says. “But at the end of the day, you can only choose one school and it comes down to the one you just can’t say no to, and that was Georgia.”

Georgia was always first on her mind since the day head coach Joni Taylor offered her. “When she offered (it to) me, she was probably the only offer I got extremely emotional in while I was sitting across from her in her office,” Barker says. “For some reason, that offer meant the most to me.”

With the help of Chase, her family and friends, Barker officially made the decision to commit to the University of Georgia when she visited the school in early October right after walking through the door of the basketball facility.

While Barker will spend her future at UGA, the offer with the second most sentimental value was her first, from UAB. “For me to have overcome two serious surgeries, it was overwhelmingly emotional,” Barker recalls. “The coach sat me down in his office and asked me the question, ‘Do you have an offer?’ I said, ‘No sir.’ He said, ‘I would like to be your first.’ I immediately got teary eyed, and my head was spinning, knowing that I had come so far in a year that this was a moment I would never forget.”