Pandemic-weary soccer fans are being reintroduced to Washington Spirit veteran Ashley Hatch in a few weeks.
The fleet-footed forward and her team will be competing in a Salt Lake City-based tournament for the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) — the first U.S. professional team league to return to play after being suspended during the COVID-19 outbreak.
Hardcore fans already know Hatch’s impressive soccer resume:
- The NWSL 2017 Rookie of the Year after being picked second in the league draft and tying a rookie record seven goals in her maiden season.
- A capped player for the U.S. Women’s National Team, making her debut in 2016 versus Switzerland.
- In 2018, she claimed the Spirit’s Golden Boot Award, leading the team in goals.
- An All-American and finalist for the 2016 Hermann Trophy Award, recognizing the top player in women’s college soccer.
- A volunteer assistant coach for the Utah Valley University women’s team.
But for Latter-day Saints, a different “category” of highlights augments her bio:
- A lifelong member, she brought new levels of exposure to the Church-owned Brigham Young University’s soccer program.
- Hatch and her husband, BYU student Jeff Van Buren, were married early in 2019 in the Gilbert Arizona Temple.
- As one of only a few Latter-day Saints in the world’s top female league (fellow BYU alum Michele Murphy Vasconcelos is a key cog in the Chicago Red Stars’ attack), Hatch has become something of an ambassador for the Church with fans and fellow players.
- And she’s served in the Seneca Ward, Seneca Maryland Stake, Young Women’s organization participating in weekly youth activities and Sunday lessons whenever possible.
Several months ago, the 25-year-old was anxious to add even more items to that resume during the 2020 season, professionally and personally. Her goals included expanding her own game, helping the Spirit reach the league final and securing a spot on her country’s Olympic team.
Then the pandemic scuttled her plans — at least temporarily.
In early March, Hatch and her team were beginning their preseason preparations when sports across the country slammed its brakes. Soon the NWSL suspended all games and group training.
“All of that seems like a lifetime ago” she said of the disruption. “It’s been rough.”
Hatch and her teammates soon found themselves balancing an uneasy mix of boredom and uncertainty — trying to keep healthy, fit and in game form with private workouts even while monitoring the day’s spooky headlines and wondering when they would again get back to training and competing together.
Given the uncertainties, Hatch opted to remain in Maryland instead of returning to her home state of Arizona to be closer to family.
Competing in games and training alongside teammates has been Hatch’s almost daily routine since she was a little girl. Suddenly her days were filled without structured soccer events.
Given the league-mandated training restrictions, “we were all largely on our own to maintain our skills and working to get better,” she said. “It’s definitely been a challenge.”
Frequent video-conference meetings with teammates and coaches kept her connected with the Spirit and the team’s rigorous personal training schedule.
Hatch’s husband, Jeff, was managing his own virus-related disruptions. His classes at BYU shifted to virtual instruction, allowing him to leave Provo and join his wife in Maryland.
“So Jeff and I would go to the nearby parks that were open and run sprints and do some technical work. It was just the two of us at the park, day after day. It felt like Groundhog Day.”
Training aside, Hatch calls it a blessing to have had her husband at her side during an anxious time. Typically, their respective school and soccer duties keep them apart several months of the year.
“We have each other — and that’s allowed us to keep moving when it seemed the whole world came to a stop,” she said.
The recent announcement that NWSL play would commence at the end of June with a league-wide tournament in the Salt Lake Valley was leap-for-joy news for Hatch. She’s ready to again do what she does best — kick soccer balls into the back of nets.
“It feels like Christmas just knowing that games are scheduled — and having it all happen in Utah is super exciting because that’s my home away from home.”
Blessings of family, gospel-centered home
Like Latter-day Saints around the world, Ashley and Jeff have adjusted to home-based Sabbath services and worship in recent months.
“It’s been a big change, but the Church was prepared for all this before it even happened with the ‘Come, Follow Me’ program,” she said. “It’s good to have my husband, a priesthood holder, here with me and share the sacrament together each Sunday.”
At a moment when one day seems like all the others, Sundays are always highlights at the Van Buren/Hatch household. “Our ward,” she added, “has also had some Zoom call devotionals, so that’s been nice to have discussions with others in ‘real life’.”
Hatch’s own gospel beliefs help her navigate the uncertainties of the day.
“My testimony of the plan of salvation, and just knowing that there is a bigger plan of all of us, helps me get through this tough time of unknowns. … I know that I have a larger purpose than playing soccer.”
Latter-day Saints are a rarity in women’s pro soccer, but Hatch said her beliefs have always been supported and respected by teammates and coaches. She’s open with her faith and personal convictions.
“Anyone that I come in contact with knows that I’m religious and they know my standards. And I’m not afraid to respectfully share my beliefs. It’s opened up conversations and helped me learn about other people’s beliefs.”
Van Buren is grateful for his wife’s perspective and example.
“I love watching Ashley play and score goals, but I love seeing her impact young players and fans and spreading the gospel through soccer even more,” he said. “Something she discusses with me a lot is how she and I can be better examples and missionaries of the Savior with the opportunities she is given through soccer.
A professional athlete’s life can be a bit transient under the best of circumstances. So Hatch is grateful for her Maryland ward where she connects with fellow Latter-day Saints.
The feeling is mutual.
“Ashley is a great asset to our ward and a great example for our young women,” said Seneca Ward Bishop Corbrett Hodson.
Hatch is often a guest in their homes for Sunday dinner when Jeff is away at BYU. Being on the receiving end of such ministering “is a huge blessing, especially when Jeff is gone. It can get lonely sometimes,” she said.