Before UNC field hockey first-years Ryleigh Heck and Ashley Sessa officially stepped foot on campus as students, they were already well-known faces in the locker room.
Heck had been selected to play in the Senior Nexus Championship in July alongside eleven other current Tar Heels and was just recently named to the 2022-23 U.S. Women’s National Field Hockey Team. As for Sessa, who already had a year under her belt on the national team, she saw playing time in Karen Shelton Stadium with UNC players in the FIH Hockey Pro League this spring.
Though Sessa and Heck grew up separated by the Pennsylvania-New Jersey border, they were brought together at the WC Eagles training center and became fast friends in grade school. This season, the two experienced newcomers will look to make an immediate impact on UNC’s offense.
“I think they’re the top two freshmen in the nation,” head coach Karen Shelton said.
The two separately received the praise after accomplished high school field hockey careers. Heck earned All-America honors three times, was named USA Today’s National Player of the Year in 2022 and led her team to three New Jersey state titles. Sessa won two gold medals with the United States Indoor Team, and at 17 years old, was the youngest player on the women's national team.
Meeting in the middle of their two hometowns to play club field hockey, Sessa and Heck formed a sister-like relationship off the field, going to family dinners and sparking arguments about stealing each others’ hair ties. But on the turf in club games, they were a dynamic duo, both playing in the middle of the field or in the attacking front.
“We would either be playing right next to each other, or I would just feed her a bunch of balls,” Heck said. “And she would just have some great goals.”
Although the pair had visited UNC when they were in grade school for camps and had always been Tar Heel fans, Heck and Sessa expressed that their decisions to commit to North Carolina were completely independent of one another.
“We both knew we’d just go where we felt the most comfortable,” Sessa said. “I committed before Riley, so when she chose UNC, I was ecstatic.”
Now sharing a slightly over-decorated room in Avery Residence Hall, Heck and Sessa have not only reunited with each other, but with UNC teammates that they’ve played with or against in the small field hockey world.
In just the first week of training on campus, the two have spent as much time completing drills and fitness tests as they have participating in team bonding activities.
The two got to know the team as they traveled to junior back Dorrit Eisenbeis’ lake house this past week for a retreat filled with wakeboarding, eating corn on the cob and playing the Psych! party game. Heck also recounted going to 411 West for a team dinner and trivia night and sitting next to Matson, her old Eagles teammate. Laughing, she bragged about being the only member of the team to guess the bonus trivia question.
“The question was ‘Where was Karen Shelton born?’ And everyone was like ‘She was probably born in Pennsylvania or something,’” Heck said. “I was like, ‘Nope. She was born in Hawaii.’”
Passionate about UNC, talented in their sport and already well-integrated socially into the team — it’s no secret that Heck and Sessa will gel with the rest of North Carolina’s roster this year. They will fill in the gaps of UNC’s attack and midfield, giving Matson the reinforcement needed on the offensive end to spark a revenge season for the Tar Heels.
“Yes, they’re freshmen,” Shelton said. “But they won’t play like freshmen.”