The Time Is Now, The Place Is Santiago For Rising Field Hockey Star Ashley Sessa
by Bob Reinert
Ashley Sessa understands as well as anyone that the U.S. women’s field hockey team’s road to Olympic Games Paris 2024 goes right through the Pan American Games Santiago 2023.
As a 19-year-old member of the U.S. team, Sessa has been preparing for this competition, which continues Saturday, Oct. 28 against Team Argentina, knowing that a gold medal there would assure the Americans an Olympic berth. But she doesn’t want to get ahead of herself.
“I’m just taking it one game at a time there,” Sessa, a native of Schwenksville, Pennsylvania, said. “If you’re there, you’re a very good team. I’ll take it one day at a time. I’m only going to focus on that game at that time.”
Making the Paris Games would be a major milestone for the U.S. women. After qualifying for three consecutive Olympics from 2008 to 2016, the squad missed out on the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 that took place in 2021. Prior to that, the U.S. had reached the Olympics just three times since women’s field hockey debuted in the Games in 1980.
If any teenager was going to approach this next task with a strong dose of perspective, though, it’s Sessa.
A longtime star, Sessa in 2021 became only the third player to make the U.S. national team as a 16-year-old, and her rise has continued from there.
Last year, she opened her freshman year at the University of North Carolina by scoring a hat trick in her first game. The midfielder/forward went on to start all 21 games as the undefeated Tar Heels won the national title, scoring nine goals to go with five assists while being named All-South Region and second-team All-ACC.
Sessa called her freshman year “a surreal experience,” and she reveled in being part of UNC’s esteemed athletics department, surrounded by top-tier athletes from a variety of sports. However, even with her first-year success at UNC, Sessa decided to enter the NCAA transfer portal.
She plans to train with the national team for the next year, taking part in the FIH Pro League again, and then begin with a new college team in the fall — hopefully after making her Olympic debut in Paris.
“I made the decision to commit to North Carolina my freshman year of high school, so I was 14. I was very young,” she explained. “I based it off of how the campus was and the history of the team. Going there and maturing and growing as a person and player, I think my mindset has definitely changed.”
A new environment and different culture could provide a better fit, she said.
“I want to reach my full potential, so going somewhere that would allow me to do that was definitely a part of it,” she said.
On the U.S. team, the culture is more familiar. On the current roster, 16 players hail Sessa’s native Pennsylvania.
“Yeah, it’s like half our team,” Sessa said. “I think it’s because there’s so much more resources in Pennsylvania for (the sport). There’s a lot of clubs, and most of the high schools have field hockey.
“Ninety percent of the team I’ve grown up playing against or with, so we know of each other. We know how each other play. Our culture together is really good, and our chemistry when we play … it’s always improving each day.”
Of course, balancing national team duties with school and collegiate play brought challenges too, especially with time management. Sessa had to adapt to leaving campus to play in the FIG Pro League, among other competitions.
“There’s good and bad, but the hockey part was really good,” she said. “I think it’s very competitive, but it’s a very loving, nurturing culture.”
For now, Sessa’s focus is on the Pan Am Games. If the U.S. falls short of qualifying for Paris there, the team will have another opportunity at an upcoming Olympic qualifying tournament.
The coming Olympic year makes this a natural time for Sessa to utilize the NCAA waiver, she said.
“I had no second thought with it,” she said. “Taking the year away from school, I think it is a blessing in disguise. I can take my time with (my transfer) because I don’t have a due date on it.”
In the meantime, the focus for Sessa and her teammates remains clear.
“We all know what we’re trying to accomplish, which is qualifying for the Olympics,” Sessa said. “We all know that’s our main goal now.”