Soccer leads West Virginia keeper to career in solving crimes

Let's get this out of the way. Yes, West Virginia senior goalkeeper Ashley Neal is a forensic science major. Yes, Neal spent her summer doing a 10-week internship in forensic psychiatry, learning the ins and outs of how to analyze cases and consult with attorneys. And yes, she even spent some time as a visitor in a correctional facility, wondering what questions to ask the murder suspect sitting across the table.

"The last week before I left work, I went in with [my supervisor], and we interviewed our first murder case," Neal recalled, an almost embarrassed giddiness still accompanying the words. "I was interviewing the suspect. To me, that was really cool."

But she is not looking for a starring role in "CSI: Morgantown."

Like a lot of recent cultural phenomena (for instance, while officials at the school stress it might not have been the only applicable factor, applications to the U.S. Naval Academy spiked by 9 percent the year after "Top Gun" filled malleable minds with images of aerial combat and Kelly McGillis), forensic science finds itself in unfamiliar new territory, residing on the cutting edge of cool after more than a century as something of a niche aspiration.

Ratings suggest that if you watch any amount of television, you probably watch at least something with a forensic bent, from the "CSI" franchise to the various "Law and Orders" or even cable reruns of "Crossing Jordan." In a recent article for The New Yorker on some of the pitfalls of the discipline's newfound popularity, Jeffrey Toobin outlined how studies indicate those sorts of shows are even affecting the way real-life juries approach their task of weighing evidence and determining guilt or innocence. Fiction is, at least in terms of perception, becoming reality.

Not surprisingly, for those on the inside, the fervor is somewhat misguided.

"It's actually kind of funny, my best friend and I are in the same major, and we used to love those shows and watch them, especially the 'CSI,' Hollywood type," Neal said, laughing. "But now we watch them to see all the stuff they do wrong. Because the procedures, how they go about stuff, is just glamour. Now we watch more of the shows on A&E, the History Channel, Court TV -- it seems like we're a bunch of middle-aged women."

Neal was one of those captivated by the fictional crime-solving forensic detectives, science superheroes for whom lab coats replace tights and microscopes stand in for X-ray vision. But her interest also predated the popularity boom, rooted in a childhood infatuation with mystery novels and board games like Clue and Crack the Case. And with an assist from soccer, that early curiosity eventually resurfaced and set her on her current career path.

Coming out of high school in West Virginia, where she was a three-sport star and an all-state selection in soccer as a senior, she wasn't sure she wanted to invest the time away from academics required to play a sport in college (she had offers to play softball as well as soccer). But when West Virginia coach Nikki Izzo-Brown, who has built the preseason No. 21 Mountaineers into a national contender during her decade-plus stay in Morgantown, came calling for a keeper, Neal couldn't pass up the opportunity to keep playing.

Neal was also attracted to the school's Forensic and Investigative Science program. While the university itself is living down a recent place atop the Princeton Review's list of the nation's top party schools, the forensic science department, developed in conjunction with the FBI, is widely recognized as one of the best of its kind in the nation.

All of which landed her, after narrowing down her area of study to forensic biology (students in the program choose between three disciplines: forensic biology, forensic chemistry or forensic examiner -- only the latter are likely to spend much time at CSI-style crime scenes), in the room with a suspected murderer as part of her internship.

"It was a great experience," Neal said. "To me, it wasn't what I really had expected. It was very calm, [we] spoke one on one -- in the middle of the interview, I felt like I was talking to my brother. Once I got comfortable with the situation, I totally forgot the parameters of really why -- how much trouble this guy could be in."

Her apparent willingness to throw her sibling (unintentionally) under the comparative bus aside, Neal credited both family (including a father who she joked enjoys living vicariously through his children and was far more excited than her mother about the jailhouse interview) and friends with supporting her unique aspirations.

"My teammates are the ones who get me really excited about it," Neal explained. "I come back from summer, and usually I spend the summer here working out with the team, and this was my first summer away from the team for my internship. I came back and they're like, 'Oh, how was your internship?' And of course, first thing, start off with a bang, I tell them about interviewing a murder suspect, and they get all excited about it, which makes me all excited about it."

Neal's career on the field at West Virginia has been, at times, far more frustrating than her academic success off it. After tearing her ACL and undergoing surgery during her sophomore year, an injury which necessitated further surgery last year, Neal has yet to appear in a game. Now a senior on a roster that includes last year's backup, Mallory Beck, and a talented freshman in Kerri Butler, she sounded during a phone conversation like someone intent on doing all she can this season but realistic about her surroundings.

"This is my last year, and I'm just trying to live out my senior year to the fullest," Neal said. "It was hard not being with the team this summer, but I think that, especially with the route I want to go with education, it will be impossible for me to do anything [with soccer] really. I'll probably continue to try and coach some. But I will miss it, and I love it."

Whether or not she plays many minutes or any minutes this season, the game won't leave her, even if time forces her to leave the game.

"The smaller aspects of it, working as a team, the time management, those aspects of it," Neal said of the way her worlds are intertwined. "When it comes to the game, and getting out there, I think there is still a similarity, because there is that competition. I want to do everything to win the game on the field, and when it comes to my job, I take it as a game -- at this level, we take games kind of seriously -- and at this job this summer, I took it as a game to do my best.

"My supervisor had interns before me, and I was thinking it was my job to be better than them."

Next up for Neal is medical school for the psychiatrist portion of the forensic psychiatrist job title. She has taken the MCATs (Medical College Admission Test) and is now trying to balance med school applications, impending coursework at West Virginia and soccer in a juggling act she laughingly admitted has left her feeling a little swamped. But after catching a glimpse of her future this summer, she's eager to take the next step toward fulfilling her ambition.

"I'm not the type of person, obviously being an athlete, who can really sit down at a desk job for eight hours or nine hours a day," Neal said. "And I absolutely loved [the internship], because to me, it was more real than the TV shows. Just the people you deal with and the cases, where all the 'CSI' ones, there is always some real glamour to it and they figure it out within an hour, but some of these processes you realize go on for months. It's a really slow process that people don't really realize the amount of time and effort that go into them."

In real life, finding answers takes time. And after 22 years of figuring out the question through soccer, school, family and curiosity, Neal is ready to start working toward hers.

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's soccer coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.