By Eliot Schickler

eschickler@bcnnew.com

Emily Ashken was a difference-maker for the Staples field hockey team.

The senior captain Ashken hopes to carry this trait to the University of Michigan.

At Staples, she earned Second Team All-FCIAC two straight years. In addition, Ashken received awards from the team, earning the Ginny Parker award as a junior and the Carroll-Fleming Family award this fall.

"It feels great and it's always nice to be recognized," Ashken said. "It feels amazing to be playing in Michigan because I'll have an opportunity to play in college and it motivated me to play this year."

Staples' opponents always knew how much of a threat she is because she's a strong two-way player. In fact, opposing coaches, such as New Canaan's Erin Gildea, knew how important it is to stop Ashken.

"Every time I get on the field, my goal is to find the best way for us to work as a team," Ashken said. "Sometimes it's distribution, sometimes it's defense. It's a matter of finding the perfect balance and this year, we achieved it."

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Lady Wreckers coach Cecily Anderson said, "Emily is the player that she is because of her work ethic and drive to be her best. She is a stronger player every year. Even though she may have had injury set backs she comes back fighting harder."

She was instrumental in Staples' offensive explosion earlier in the season because of her ability to deftly pass it to the open teammate. Overall, Ashken had 12 goals and six assists in 13 games.

"Passing [is about] learning how to work with people you play with," Ashken said. "We're an experienced team and our learning how to play together paid off."

Ashken also tallied her share of goals during the Lady Wreckers' scoring barrage. One person she credits is coach Darren Smallhorn, a former player on the U.S. men's national team, who coaches the winter team she plays on along with Deb Brickley.

"You [need to] practice a lot," Ashken said. "When I work with my coach out of season, he [Smallhorn] told me to hit 300 balls in a row and I'd go out there, and hit 300 balls at a time, and come back the next day and hit another 300."

She was one of Anderson's go-to players who was relied upon in clutch situations. Although Ashken was the bread and butter of Staples' attack, she remained modest about her role and epitomizes what a team player is.

"I really put everything I had into the program the last three years," Ashken said. "I try to help people improve. A lot of us are go-to players on the team, but I guess I became a go-to player through my dedication."

Defensively, Ashken made the plays as well.

"It all comes down to practice and doing the 1-on-1 drills with the best players like Callie Hiner," Ashken said. "Working on it in practice helps me get better."

Whenever Ashken had free hits, she sent it far, which led to many transition opportunities.

"I attribute it to our conditioning but in the end, it comes down to practice," Ashken said. "Anyone can hit the ball hard and it took a lot of practice to learn how to get my accuracy down."

Proof of how much Ashken meant to the Lady Wreckers was how they played after she suffered an ankle injury. She tore four ligaments in her right ankle and missed the final six games of the season.

"It was incredibly tough when it happened and I tried to stay calm even though my doctor wasn't encouraged," Ashken said. "I wanted to come back because I played on an incredible team and I was recovered enough that I would be able to contribute and not compromise my future."

Ashken was cleared to play in the FCIAC tournament and she helped Staples win its first title since 1994 by contributing two goals and two assists. Her presence was immense as she figured in four out of the team's five goals in the tournament.

"Having Emily in the line up for the tournament was instrumental to our success," Anderson said. "It gave the team the confidence it needed. When she has the ball she plays with power and authority. That kind of mind set is contagious. Her killer drive doesn't hurt during corners as well."

If you asked her if this everlasting love for the sport was plausible six years ago, she would have scoffed at you because this thought appeared to be preposterous back then. Ashken first began playing field hockey in seventh grade because her father Ian, who used to play it, suggested that she give it a try. At first, she was skeptical because she didn't want to play a sport that mandated her to wear a skirt.

"He said `you don't know until you try it' and it turned out for the best," Ashken recalled. "There's something special with the team I'm on and I love the amount of skill that it's needed. It takes a lot of practice and hand-eye coordination."

Before Ashken devoted herself to field hockey, she tried tennis, softball, soccer and waterskiing.

Leadership is another strength of hers as she was a captain. Ashken guided the team through her work ethic and also encouraged her teammates verbally.

"Being a captain was a huge honor," Ashken said. "We had a lot of captains and each contributed differently. It made us a strong team but you didn't need the title to be a leader, all the seniors were leaders."

Anderson said, "Emily has been a leader since her freshman year. She isn't afraid to stick her neck out and get girls to rally around her. She is excellent organizer and off season motivator."

Ashken excels in the classroom as well and her favorite subject depends on the teacher.

"Academics come first and athletics come second," Ashken said. "You have to find the perfect balance and athletics help me focus on school and I'm lucky to go to a great school."

At Michigan, Ashken will attend the School of Kinesiology and hopes to major in sports medicine. Her dream is to get into coaching at a high level.

For now, her focus is to improve her skills so she can contribute for the Lady Wolverines.

"The next six months are critical for me," Ashken said. "Once I'm fully recovered, I'll practice three to four times a week and this summer will play a huge role for me. It will be hard leaving this team but everyone will be moving on to bigger and better things."

Anderson said, "I can just imagine Emily on her first day of preseason and when her new team starts warming up she will be thrilled to be involved with such a high level. It ups everyone's level and intensity. Finally for Emily everyone will be as serious as she is about the sport she loves. She has come so far in these past four years that I'm thrilled to see what the next level will bring for her."