Western Washington University junior Ashley Haden doesn’t shy away from the moment, no matter how big it is.
“Ashley is a player that thrives in those big situations,” Vikings women’s coach Travis Connell said in a phone interview. “She hopes to be a part of them, and she loves to answer the challenge.”
Haden is only hours away from one of her biggest challenges yet, as the first-year starting goalkeeper and her WWU teammates prepare to host Cal State Stanislaus at 1 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 15, at Robert S. Harrington Field in the NCAA Division II West Region semifinals. The fourth-seeded Warriors (14-4-1) earned the right to face the top-seeded Vikings (16-0-4) by beating Seattle Pacific 2-1 in overtime on Thursday, Nov. 13.
“They like to counter quickly,” Haden said in a phone interview. “We will definitely have to watch that. If we have numbers up, we have to make sure they don’t counter attack and hurt us. I’m not as good at scouting as Coach Connell, but I can tell you that is a good team we will be playing.”
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But according to Connell, that’s when Haden tends to be at her best.
Numerous times she has been tested by the best the Great Northwest Athletic Conference and the region has had to offer this season, and more times than not, Haden has come up with an answer.
“Our most challenging games come against the top teams,” Connell said. “We’ve played SPU three times, and I can think of a number of shots against her where she came up big or PKs where she tipped the ball over or one-on-one saves where she’s been able to come out and smother the ball. She doesn’t shy away from big games. She’s someone that likes the challenge.”
That, of course, is always interesting for a goalkeeper — a player that if everyone else on her team does there job, might only see real meaningful action only a handful of times in a game.
And with a defense like Haden has in front of her, highlighted by 2014 GNAC Defensive Player of the Year Kim Cooper and 2013 GNAC Defensive Player of the Year Brianna Jones, Haden and the other WWU net minders are facing only 9.4 shots per game.
Haden has answered when she has been challenged, leading the GNAC with her .917 save percentage and 11 shutouts this season and helping Western rank fourth nationally with its 0.28 goals-against average. The Vikings have allowed only six goals all season — one of which was a an own goal — and have logged 14 shutouts. Haden, who was a second-team All-GNAC selection, enters Saturday ranked fifth nationally with her 0.29 goals-against average.
Her consistency and her ability to handle the ups and downs of the game, Connell said, are what sets her apart
“You can go long stretches without touching a ball,” Connell said, “and then you’re needed all of a sudden to come up with a big save. You’ve got to be a mentally disciplined and mentally tough athlete to be able to do that. That’s something Ashley brings to each and every game.”
To keep herself focused and ready when called on, Haden said she spends a lot of time communicating with her defenders, letting them know what she sees — when opposing players are coming up on them, when opponents are looking wide or who needs to go up and get the ball out of the air.
“It’s all mental,” Haden said. “You have to stay engaged in the game. You want to read the flow and communicate with your defense.”
And it doesn’t hurt that Haden has some experience patiently waiting for her time to shine.
After red-shirting her first year out of Hockinson High School, where she was the Greater St. Helens League Defensive MVP and reached the Class 2A state playoffs four straight years as a four-time all-league selection, she got into just one game in 2011. She was then granted a medical hardship year in 2012 after tearing meniscus in her right knee during practice. Last year she played in five games and made two saves playing behind regular WWU starter Alyssa Beauchamp, who helped the Vikings reach the national semifinals.
“Definitely having four years to improve and pick up the pace of the game has helped me this year, helping me to read more and know better when to come out on balls and when to stay back and how to communicate with my defense,” Haden said.
Haden isn’t the only new regular starter on the Vikings’ defense this year. Chelsea Jackson has taken over as the starter at center back and the versatile Caitlyn Jobanek moving in at outside back.
“Chelsea and Caitlyn played a lot last year, so that helped with the transition,” Connell said. “And in the spring, Ashley got to start and play those minutes. Those are valuable times. All three of them made the most of the offseason — they worked hard and got a glimpse of what it was going to take. Then we got tested early in a couple of tough games against top California schools, and it kind of galvanized that line and the goalkeeper. They needed to be tested. They survived and it added to the confidence they had.”
Every once of their confidence will be needed on Saturday, against a Cal State Stanislaus squad that led the California Collegiate Athletic Association with 53 goals this year, led by forward Karenee Demery, who averaged a goal a game, and Katelyn Nebesnick.
“Stanislaus has a little different style than we’ve seen,” Connell said. “They’re explosive with some attacking players, and it will be up to us to answer that challenge.”
Fortunately, the Vikings have a keeper that has answered most every challenge placed in front of her this year.