Ashley Sessa could barely feel her fingers during the University of North Carolina’s NCAA championship game against Northwestern. But when the freshman starter got a stick to her nose midway through, the cold took away the initial pain as she couldn’t feel her face.
“It was freezing and I’m from Pennsylvania so I know the cold. I’ve played in the cold my whole life,” said Sessa, who is from Schwenksville. “But it was so cold my face was numb. All I felt was the initial burst of hit.
“I knew the quicker I got out [the field], the quicker I could get back into the game. I changed my jersey number because there was blood on it and then they just put a bandage on me and went back in after that.”
Sessa, a recent graduate of Episcopal Academy, was determined to help her team win a title (even if it meant getting hit in the face with an opponent’s stick), and she did just that. UNC won its 10th NCAA Division I field hockey championship, beating Northwestern, who won the championship last season, 2-1.
Veteran head coach Karen Shelton’s motto all season has been to play game after game. The West Chester graduate’s motto seemed to come in handy as UNC finished with a 21-0 record. Sessa also felt that the team’s success was due to the similar style of play, as 13 players on the roster hail from Pennsylvania and South Jersey.
“It always helps to have a familiar face because it’s like a feeling like you’ve still got a little bit of home since you grew up with them, and then you see them every day,” Sessa said.
“We are all very fast, we love going forward, we like to challenge opponents and we always stand up for each other on the pitch. It is selfless leadership.”
It was also an easier transition process for the 5ft 3 forward/midfielder who made an immediate impression. She started in every game and finished the season third with nine goals. But her main focus has been working on her defensive skills.
During her field hockey career in high school and club with WC Eagles, Sessa was known as a dominant attacker. However, with the USA national team, for which she has been playing since 2021, Sessa has worked more defensively and would like to further improve these areas as a midfielder.
“I think that really helped my game expand my skillset,” Sessa said. “Have a variety of skills and focus not only on offense but also on defense. My defense has grown a lot and is teaching me to be patient. So when I go forward, I don’t rush to score.
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Her freshman college season had a few bumps and bruises, like nervousness about playing at a new level. Then, midway through the season, Sessa caught herself over-analyzing the game, which affected the way she played.
While her teammates offered her support on how to overcome those mistakes or pregame nervousness, Sessa also brought back some of the rituals she used to do in high school for her college warm-up.
“I went back to how I used to play, whether it was singing warm-ups or just dancing,” Sessa said. “That’s when I’m doing my best when I’m not thinking, so I just go out there and have fun and remind myself why I love the game so much and go back to it and then it really shows.”
With her freshman season over, Sessa shifts her focus to the national team. She plans to go to Chula Vista, California for two to three weeks in January to train and try out for the International Hockey Federation (FIH) Hockey Pro League, an international field hockey competition.
“I’m really going to focus on the US now,” Sessa said. “Keep growing as a player, mindset and skills.”