Through her character and mature performance as a first-year player for the North Carolina field hockey team, Ashley Sessa has proven that she is one of a kind.
“You can always fall back on her and trust her with everything,” teammate Kennedy Cliggett said. “I’m grateful to get to know her on and off the field.”
Field hockey has been embedded in Sessa’s identity since she was four years old. After begging her mother to allow her to play football alongside her brother, she was enrolled in a YMCA field hockey program. Her life-long experience is evident in her countless accolades and her participation in competitions around the globe, playing in Chile, South Africa and Austria.
This year, she has emerged as one of the young stars for North Carolina, a team that is looking to capture its fourth national title in five years.
Sessa’s love for competition is clear, and has been evident since a young age. She fondly remembers 100-yard dashes with her brother on family beach vacations and strength competitions as children.
“We were so competitive growing up,” Sessa said. “He was six years older, but he never let me win.”
Apart from being the youngest sibling, Sessa is also one of the youngest members of the Tar Heel team. Not only is she a first-year, but she is a young first-year, turning 18 this June.
“It has really helped me being one of the youngest on the team, and normally, one of the smallest,” Sessa said. “That has just developed me as a player to know my confidence and know what I can do on the field.”
Before coming to UNC, she was the 2022 Pennsylvania All-State Player of the Year and a three-time high school All-American. She has been a member of the WC Eagles, which UNC head coach Karen Shelton calls the best field hockey club in the country, since she was 8 years old. The club is also the former home of many North Carolina players, including Erin Matson, Kelly Smith and Sessa’s childhood friend Cliggett.
The two players met at WC and have become close family friends over the years, drawn together by the shared hardship of having mothers who have struggled with breast cancer. Their relationship has grown even stronger as college teammates.
Cliggett still remembers encouraging Sessa to come to Chapel Hill, citing the natural connection between the two of them.
“We’ve basically grown up with each other,” Cliggett said. “I was like, ‘I’d love doing college with you. That would be so fun. Our experience on and off the field would be great.'”
Sessa ended up following Cliggett to college, which helped a North Carolina team looking to bounce back from postseason disappointment in the 2021-22 campaign. Sessa arrived as a top-10 recruit in the 2022 class and was able to gain experience on the Tar Heels’ home field with future teammates by participating in the FIH Hockey Pro League in her senior year of high school.
The young player quickly made an impact for the Tar Heels, scoring a hat trick in the team's season-opening win over Michigan. She then went on to demonstrate her strong dribbling and shooting skills in UNC’s shutout win over Louisville, and in that matchup, she posted four shots on goal and her sixth career goal.
Sessa has a sense of maturity about her that is evident in her performance on the field. She has started all 19 games for UNC this season, with nine goals and a .702 shot on goal percentage.
“She’s very stable and steady,” Shelton said. “She’s just calm under pressure and doesn’t get rattled."
Sessa’s poise has already been evident in the postseason, too, where she has contributed a goal in both the Tar Heels’ NCAA Tournament wins so far.
In a round-one victory over Delaware, Sessa had a goal that gave her team a 4-1 lead. She continued to find success in the next round, with a backhanded shot that made it past Saint Joseph’s goalkeeper for a goal. The first-year will look to aid in her team’s success as they move forward to the Final Four this weekend.
Sessa has three more years of college eligibility to grow and thrive as a Tar Heel. She will continue serving as a member of the U.S. Women’s National Team and has an ultimate career goal of becoming an Olympian.
But throughout the journey, her maturity and off-the-field personality will help the budding star remain focused, and, ultimately, remain a reliable player at North Carolina for years to come.
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