By Hayley Tafuro
STAMFORD — When Ashley Rich started playing field hockey in the fifth grade, Stamford did not have a youth program for elementary school students. Oddly enough, her career blossomed across town lines in Darien.
Once she reached middle school, she joined Stamford’s program and also found a travel team that she would end up sticking with all the way through high school called Fairfield County United.
At this point, only a seventh grader, Rich knew that she would want to play in college.
“That’s when it got more competitive for me and I started to develop more advanced skills,” she said. “Those coaches there really convinced me that I had the potential to play, and it was something that I wanted to do.”
Fast forward about five years later, and Rich is about to embark on a journey to one of the most prestigious collegiate field hockey programs in the country at the University of Connecticut.
Rich did not come from a town where field hockey was introduced to kids in kindergarten. It simply was not as popular as in Darien or a Wilton. She had to create her own path to get to the level that she aspired.
“Westhill didn’t really have a strong program at the time,” she said. “Our coaches didn’t have a ton of background with field hockey, and we were still building our team at that point.”
Rich was part of an incoming class of girls at Westhill High School that changed the way the town looked at field hockey. This was the first time that a group of players had come in with experience, and Rich led the way with her hopes to play at the collegiate level fueling her every move.
She started varsity all four seasons, and never took a full season off from the sport. Fairfield County United kept her going during the winter, spring and summer seasons.
“I was exposed to better competition all around with my club team, but Westhill was always helpful. That’s where I really developed my leadership skills,” she said.
When the time came for Rich to start making decisions about where she wanted to continue, she approached her visit with UConn with a sense of familiarity since her brother had attended school there. However, her stay with the team sealed the deal and now the rest is history.
“When I visited, the experience being with the team, I felt like I connected with them, and the coaches are amazing and to be able to work under them and learn from them is something that really drew me in,” she said.
Coach Nancy Stevens is among the top in the nation and she led a talent-rich team to back-to-back national championships in 2013 and this past season. For Rich, this is just like a dream come true to enter into such a renowned program.
Before she could start thinking about playing for UConn, she had a senior season to finish at Westhill under coach Kevin DeAngelo. The team had one of its most successful seasons yet, ending with a 10-4-1 regular season record. This was highlighted by a huge 3-2 win against Darien, the program’s first over the Blue Wave since 2003. Rich had one of the three goals in the contest, and she describes this as the most memorable game of her career.
“That was our goal since freshman year, to beat Darien, and we finally did it,” she said. “It was a great game and an amazing experience.”
While Westhill is not known for cranking out college prospects left and right, this year Rich is among three in her class who are taking that next step — fellow co-captains Emma Hart is going to Union College and Jackie Forde to Salisbury College — and she is one of the few to head to the Division I level.
“It means a lot to me,” she said. “My class coming in, we came from the years that the youth program was the strongest. We had a lot of girls coming in who had background and experience. Being a part of that for four years, I was able to pass on that experience to the younger girls in the Stamford program. The experience that we collectively had, it was great that we were able to keep it going and keep the program going.”
With high school now in the books, Rich will be heading to UConn for the freshman athlete summer program in just over a week.
“I’ll be training with the other athletes every day, and I’ll also be taking two classes up there while doing that,” she explained. “That will help me get ahead a little bit while I’m up there so that I can focus on my training during the season too.”
This will be key for Rich, who plans on entering the school’s rigorous nursing program come the fall. She has been looking forward to this since she started scoping out UConn, and has been volunteering at the Stamford Hospital to log some hours and take a break from being on the field before stepping into the national spotlight at UConn.
“It definitely intimidates me,” Rich said. “I’m nervous and I know it’s going to take a lot of hard work and it’ll be overwhelming at times, but I think that will also be worth it in the end. I don’t really have unrealistic expectations. I know the talent that’s on that team but, my expectations for myself, I just hope that I can show my coaches my potential and contribute to the team as much as I can and help them hopefully win another championship.”