“It was a new situation for me not getting a lot of time early but I wanted to make the best of it. It was definitely a mental battle and it was one that I was ready for coming in [to preseason]. I learned a lot early on and I enjoyed learning and working hard in practice every day to try and show the coaches that whenever they need me, I am ready.“ – Ashley Hatch
It’s never easy for any young player to accept taking a slow, gradual approach to their professional career after coming off of a successful collegiate one. Especially for strikers in the National Women’s Soccer League where they have to deal with some of the best defenders in the world and could come away empty-handed and frustrated week after week, unlike their free-flowing scoring days at the college level.
But for North Carolina Courage forward Ashley Hatch, sacrificing early season playing time in order for her to take the time to learn about nuances about the professional game has benefitted her greatly in her debut campaign. She has scored in each of her team’s last three games and has logged over 300 minutes in her last five matches, after starting the season playing a grand total of 35 minutes through four appearances, attempting just one shot during that time.
Her recent offensive surge of goals in three straight games has been the culmination of a lot of hard hours put in on the training ground over the first few months of the season. And it wasn’t so much about the goal scoring that needed work, as Hatch scored 47 goals in her four seasons at BYU, including 19 goals in her senior season. But it was learning on how to make runs at the right time, how to hold up play for her teammates on the front line and how to operate in Head Coach Paul Riley’s patented high pressure, pressing defense.
And that reason is why Riley wanted to make sure that all the necessary work was put in for the Courage’s top pick in the 2017 NWSL Draft before she started to get going.
“To be honest with you, I thought [Hatch] was the next best player in the draft last year, after Rose Lavelle,” said Riley. “I didn’t play her early on because I didn’t want her to not succeed. And that’s why I wanted to wait with her a little bit and bring her along. We figured the best thing for her was to just develop her, have her around Jess [McDonald] and Lynn [Williams] every day and we worked a lot on runs, working around the goal, settling into the pace of the league and physicality of the league.”
One of the real moments that Hatch felt she would be able to make an impact and succeed at this level came prior to those during those long preseason practices with the Courage. It came towards the end of her memorable senior year in college when it was announced she was called up for a series of games with the US Women’s National Team as the defending World Champions took on Switzerland. She then made her senior international debut on October 19 against the Swiss in Sandy, Utah, roughly 45 minutes away from BYU’s campus in Provo.
After having the opportunity to reflect on her National Team debut, that experience was vital for her as she got a feel for the first time what it was like to play at the professional level.
“It was my first time being around professional soccer players and I learned a lot from just watching them and practicing with them,” said Hatch. “Learning how to manage yourself, taking care of yourself in recovery, seeing the confidence the entire [US] team has when they step onto the field. It definitely helped a lot. It helped not only with my game and the experience but it helped my confidence knowing that if I can play with those players at that level then I can definitely play with these girls.”
That education process continued during those training sessions in the spring where, as Hatch stated, it was beneficial for her just to take in how her strike partners, McDonald and Williams, worked with each other and how they pushed each other, as well as the rest of the team, every day in training. Riley noticed that as well as she was always attentive during meetings and wanted to grasp as much information as possible.
“She’s got a great personality and she’s a sponge,” said Riley. “Ashley just wants to learn and get better. Even when she wasn’t playing at the beginning, there were no issues for her, she wanted to develop her game and she asked a lot of questions during the preseason, and now she knows what to expect and is doing that.”
And eventually the hard work and learning paid off for Hatch as she started to see more time on the field over the past month and more scoring chances coming her way. As with any good goal scorer, the more opportunities that present themselves, the finishing will come and Hatch opened her professional account in the Courage’s 2-0 victory against FC Kansas City on June 3rd. Goals followed in each of their two victories against Boston, giving her the lead of most goals scored amongst all NWSL rookies.
More importantly for Hatch, as the Courage heads into the second half of the season, it’s a sense of relief for her knowing that her studious approach to the professional game is starting to pay off.
“It definitely is a lot of fun getting back on the field and to score some goals. This team is amazing and playing with them, it makes my job a lot easier. Its just making sure I’m in the right spot at the right time so that I can help our midfielders out and then working hard with the team in our press and just learning all of those aspects of the game has definitely helped me. And now to see all that hard work in practice pay off in games is great.”
For Riley, he believes that this is only the beginning of what is to come for her in a potentially very successful professional career.
“She’s in great form at the moment and she is a great person to coach. She is a workaholic and I’ve been really impressed with her. Everybody said that Rose Lavelle was probably going to be the Rookie of the Year but I have no doubt that Ashley is going to give her a run for her money.”