Tuesday, September 29, 2020

BYU’s Ashley Hatch returning to Utah for NWSL Challenge Cup

Former BYU women’s soccer standout Ashley Hatch is set to become one of the first American professional athletes to return to play amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Hatch, now a member of the Washington Spirit of the National Women’s Soccer League, will return to Utah to participate in the league’s Challenge Cup later this month, and she could not be more excited about it.

“I definitely had a pretty big smile on my face once I heard the news,” Hatch said.

A native of Gilbert, Arizona, Hatch has spent the last two seasons leading the attack for the Spirit, scoring a team-best four goals in 2018 and tallying seven last year. The 2017 NWSL Rookie of the Year and former No. 2 pick was determined to have the most dominant season of her career yet before the 2020 campaign came to an abrupt halt.

The NWSL, like most professional sports leagues throughout the world, was forced to suspend its season indefinitely in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Hatch and her teammates were making their final preparations for the six-month long season, which was supposed to start on April 14, when they received the news.

“Just like everyone else, I was not expecting a nation-wide shutdown,” Hatch said.

Ashley Hatch dribbles the ball past her defenders during a game against Oregon State on Sept. 17, 2015. (Ari Davis)

The NWSL, however, has been especially proactive in attempting to make an early but safe return to action. On May 25, the league announced it would be sending all nine of its teams to Utah to compete in the month-long Challenge Cup. The league announced a June 27 start date for the tournament, making it the first American professional sports league set to return to play.

“It’s a huge honor to be one of the first sports leagues back,” Hatch said. “I think it is also a testament to how serious we are as a league about our sport and how much our league’s leaders and team owners believe in us as players.”

The Challenge Cup will feature 25 total games, starting with a preliminary round in which all nine teams will each play four games to determine seeding. The top eight teams will then advance to the knockout round, a single-elimination bracket to determine the winner.

Games will be played at Zions Bank Stadium in Herriman until the semifinal and final rounds, which will be held at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, home of the Utah Royals FC. No fans will be allowed to attend.

Hatch, along with the rest of the league, will have to remain quarantined throughout the duration of the tournament and will likely be subject to frequent COVID-19 testing and symptom reviews.

Despite the circumstances, Hatch is looking forward to returning to the state she spent her college days in.

“Utah is a second home for me,” Hatch said. “It’s where I went to school and where my husband and his family are from. I was obviously very happy about the news.”

Hatch, who has remained in Maryland throughout the pandemic, is doing all she can to remain in top physical shape. Rigorous personal workout programs set up by the Spirit’s strength coach have helped Hatch remain confident in her ability to perform at a high level once the season begins. Frequent Zoom calls have also allowed Hatch and her teammates to stay connected and hold each other accountable for their physical and mental preparations for the season.

Hatch’s husband, Jeff, has also been a big source of help during the lockdown. Jeff, a BYU student, made the trip out East as soon as the university announced the shift to online classes for the remainder of winter semester. The two spent nearly every day of the following several weeks playing soccer and working out together.

Ashley Hatch takes a shot against Gonzaga on Nov. 5, 2016. Hatch scored 19 goals as a senior with the BYU women’s soccer team and was the No. 2 pick in the 2017 NWSL Draft. (Ari Davis)

“My husband was a huge help in keeping me motivated and sane during a time of so much unknown,” Hatch said. “We would find a park to go run at and then practice soccer at on our own. Once I got my run in and my touches for the day, I would come home and get my lift done here and then repeat the same thing the next day.”

Hatch is no stranger to change or uncertainty. She also knows what it takes to succeed amid such times. Hatch excelled after making the initial jump from BYU to the pros, scoring seven goals during her Rookie of the Year campaign with the North Carolina Courage. That very offseason she was traded to the Spirit, where she was forced to learn and adjust to an entirely new style of play.

Hatch believes the COVID-19 pandemic is just another opportunity for her to adjust and emerge an even better player.

“My competitive nature and my love for new challenges have helped me to push myself and rise to the challenge,” Hatch said. “I still have a long way to go but I am always eager to improve and get better as a player.”

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