When Ashley Rich announced three years ago that she was going to continue her field hockey career at the University of Connecticut, the then-Westhill senior’s decision drew a cynical response.
The overriding sentiment: why go to an elite program and sit on the bench for four years when you could play at a mid-major and make a more significant contribution.
Rich recalls the reaction to her choice. It never upset her.
“Some people want to be a big fish in a little pond and some people are OK with being a little fish in a big pond for a while, and that was me,” Rich said. “I was OK with that. I picked UConn mostly for nursing. I didn’t pick my school based on field hockey. I was just happy to experience collegiate play and contribute to the team and eventually work my way up, which I was able to do. So it didn’t really bother me to hear people say that.”
Score one for chasing your dreams.
Rich now has a national championship medal and academic distinction on her resume. The Huskies won the title on Nov. 19 with a 2-1 win over Maryland. Three days earlier, on the eve of a semifinal victory against North Carolina, Rich received the Elite 90 award for the 2017 Division 1 Field Hockey Championship, which recognizes academic success among Final Four players.
Rich, a nursing major, has a 3.985 grade point average.
“It was surprising honestly because you have UNC and Michigan and there have to be some really academically inclined players because they’re both such great schools,” Rich said. “I knew I was in the running but I didn’t think I would actually win it so it was a nice surprise.”
Rich, a redshirt sophomore, played a prominent role for the Huskies, appearing in 20 games, with five starts. She finished with three assists.
“She’s been an integral part of our team for the past several years,” UConn coach Nancy Stevens said. “She played a lot last year, she played a lot this year. She should be proud of her accomplishments. How exciting to be named as the top student-athlete at the Final Four. The one with the highest GPA. It’s cool and it really gave the team a lift. A real sense of pride.”
Stevens, who has led the Huskies to three national championships in five years, said she recognized qualities in Rich similar to other recruits with a high upside.
“Someone who relishes a challenge is going to pick that program because she is going to say I am going to get better,” Stevens said. “As opposed to being intimidated and say I won’t play. There’s winners in life and Ashley chose the challenge and rose and met the challenge.”
Rich admitted she is still coming to terms with being part of the nation’s best field hockey team.
“It’s incredible honestly,” she said. “Winning is surreal. It still hasn’t hit me. It was an incredible feeling knowing all our hard work paid off. I’m surrounded by so much talent and passion. I’m so grateful to be part of a team with so much grit.”
Though Rich’s career remains an open book, the championship was the culmination of a process that began with sitting out as a freshman.
“I was always realistic about it,” Rich said. “I knew that this team had a lot of talented players. I’m not going to be at the top of the totem pole like I was at Westhill or with my club team. I accepted that and was willing to put in the extra work. It gives you a season to adjust to the level of play and learn the strategy, the tactics and see how the older girls did it all. That made it so much more rewarding this year when I got the playing time.”
Rich’s first start was on Sept. 24, a road win over Delaware, the defending national champion. Stevens praised her performance.
“That was so nerve-wracking but so rewarding afterward,” Rich said.
Rich’s schedule, because of her major, is unlike her teammates’. Twice a week she has an eight-hour rotation at a nursing home starting at 7 a.m. It is close to campus, but she still is a late arrival to practice.
“I can see her running in, we’re out in the field, she’s in her nursing outfit,” Stevens said. “I always say ‘Hey, I need my blood pressure taken.’ ”
Rich said her academic workload will be even more taxing next year.
That may also be the case athletically.
“Her goal would be to be a full-time starter and that is certainly within her reach,” Stevens said.