There’s a mantra Longmeadow High School field hockey head coach Ann Simons has always preached throughout her 38 years of coaching the Lancers.
She who has the will to win cannot be beaten.
It’s a mindset Simons has possessed since her playing days at her alma mater, 15 minutes up the road from where Longmeadow has reigned dominant on its home field.
The Lancer head coach is a graduate of the class of 1981. When she suited up for the Pride, the program faced off against Division I competition – the field hockey powerhouses of New England.
“We were getting killed,” Simons said. “UMass, Cortland State – you name it, we played it. It wasn’t so much fun. We were good, we just weren’t as good as those other teams.”
To compete against the best, Springfield needed a certain toughness about them, a steel-trap mentality. Since assuming the helm at Longmeadow, it’s a chip, a playing style, that Simons has prioritized instilling within the girls she guides and trains.
Sometimes her players buy in right away, or, even better, are prolific in such a mindset on the first day of their tryouts.
It was during the summer of 2014, at her Longmeadow camp, when Simons found the latter.
She found it in a player who had picked up a field hockey stick for the first time only one year prior. But it wouldn’t be long before Western Mass. would know the skills of the then-freshman forward.
Her name was Kyra Ashe.
And her game was formed not upon grass or turf, but atop cold-hard ice and the blades of skates.
Before being a member of Springfield College field hockey, Ashe grew up in Longmeadow, Mass. She, along with a small group of friends were among the few girls in town who partook in playing ice hockey competitively. It was a friend group that had grown since the time Ashe was four years old, when she laced up her skates for the first time.
Ashe started ice hockey around the same time as her older brother, Tiernan. The two come from a family of avid hockey fans, yet are the first to ever play the sport.
“[Ice hockey] was the only sport I didn’t play [growing up], I didn’t learn to skate until I was older and I had always regretted it because I loved hockey,” said Brian Ashe, Kyra’s father. “That was one of the reasons why we got Kyra and Tiernan to learn how to skate early on.”
Kyra had always enjoyed the uniqueness that came with playing ice hockey in a town ruled by field hockey and lacrosse.
“My favorite part was the fact that no one else did it,” she said. “[Going to school] It was me and two other girls in my grade … We didn’t have an actual [girls] ice hockey team at our school for a long time. Whenever I told people they thought it was so cool I played because no girl was really [playing ice hockey] around here.”
For Ashe, she started playing travel hockey with the boys at age 10, before competing in high school — even prior to enrolling as a high school freshman. She played alongside her two friends for Cathedral High (now Pope Francis) as an eighth grader before her freshman year.
“She held her own which was great,” said Brian Ashe. “The best part was when they got to play high school hockey. For me, it was kind of extra special because even though we were living in Longmeadow my daughter got to play for my alma mater for two years … Playing with 18 year olds, it had to be a little scary playing against young women but it was a great experience. They held their own.”
Ashe believes that her time playing against boys as well as older girls, helped her mindset.
“I liked it,” she said. “I think that’s what made me competitive because they’re obviously more competitive, usually. That definitely gave me my competition drive. You have to think faster because everything happens quicker.”
Following her first two seasons with the team, Longmeadow High School took over Cathedral’s program to create Longmeadow Ice Hockey a school co-op featuring Minnechaug, East Longmeadow, Longmeadow, and Sabis. Ashe continued with the merged team, playing out through her senior year of high school. Brian said his daughter’s intensity never faded.
“If she ever got knocked down or hit, I knew she’d actually play better after that,” he said. “It kind of fires her up.”
Kyra elaborated as to why she felt she plays better under such circumstance.
“‘Cause I’d be pissed off,” she said with a grin. “Any time anyone knocks you down you’re going to get annoyed. I don’t know, I know it’s a part of the game but it fires me up. If there was ever a brawl in front of the net or someone touches your goalie you’re going to play harder.”
Heading into her final year before beginning high school, Ashe had no intention towards picking up field hockey. She was all about life on the ice.
“I never followed field hockey before high school. I knew nothing about it,” said Ashe. “I hated it at first. I never wanted to play until a couple of my friends started telling me I should tryout. And now I like it better than [ice] hockey.”
Ashe followed through with the suggestion, attending Simons’ Longmeadow summer camp after playing field hockey for the first time in eighth grade. She returned to Simons that same fall to tryout for the team as a freshman.
There was running. A lot of it. The conditioning was rigorous. But the physicality she had needed to play through as a child, the frantic strides of the skates she would need to execute when trying to outrace someone bigger and stronger for a loose puck — it all had paid off.
“I think [the similarities were] why I adjusted so well [after] starting [field hockey] so late … it was a weird transition – It’s the same but also really different,” said Ashe. “There’s a lot more rules in field hockey, a lot more whistles. [Field hockey is] just a little slower.”
Ashe was ready right away.
“She doesn’t have to be one of the fastest kids [because] she’s always going to be one of the toughest kids [on the field],” Simons said.
Although playing for the Lancers under Simons would demand a great deal of effort, Ashe understood her coach’s end goal for the players fairly quickly.
“[Simons is] a coach that most people are scared of [and] if you’re a freshman you’re definitely terrified by her,” explained Ashe. “But once you get to know her [and] as you get older she’s actually the sweetest person. She loves and cares about all of us even though she’s a really hard coach. She does it because she wants the best from you.”
Ashe made Longmeadow’s varsity team as a sophomore. Although she was still young, Simons knew the skill was already there, and wanted her forward to take control immediately. Springfield College sophomore defender, Tricia Murphy will never forget when Ashe ruined her Minnechaug senior night by scoring the game’s only goal.
“I always hated playing against her,” Murphy said. “She had a lot of stick skills – approaching her was always a tricky situation. You never knew – you didn’t want to come on too fast [but you] couldn’t go on too slow, she was very hard to defend.”
Ashe cemented herself as one of Western Mass.’s lead scorers as a junior. As a senior she led the Lancers to a 3-2, state semi-finals win with a hat trick. Since her first few weeks in working with Ashe when she was a freshman, Simons had no doubt she had potential in accomplishing such feats.
“I’d tell her all the time, ‘you can’t just lay back and wait for everyone else to do it, you have to do it, and you have to be a leader,” said Simons.
Ashe appreciated her coach’s early encouragement, and trust in her ability.
“I probably had a little less confidence [going into field hockey] just because it was my first couple of years playing the sport … I [had been] one of the youngest people on the team,” Ashe said. “She taught me things that I’ve never learned from any other coach. I think she made me a better person, overall.”
Ashe feels as though she’s never left home. She has her Lancer teammates, Taylor Low and Sydney Harris, along with a roster of 23 who have embraced her from day one.
Ashe also has the same mantra, the same mindset from Longmeadow in the back of her mind at all times.
She who has the will to win cannot be beaten.
It is still a fabric of Springfield field hockey’s culture, 37 years after Simons’ graduation.
“I’ve [ran with that] ever since I started with it in high school, ever since I heard it for the first time,” Ashe said. “The fact that it’s continued here too — I thought that was really cool. It always reminds me of Coach Simons, which is why it’s always motivating … If you want it there’s nothing stopping you from getting it.”
Ashe is now 17 games into her collegiate field hockey career. She is second on the team in goals scored, with 18. The Pride are set to face off against Smith on Thursday in the NEWMAC tournament semifinal.
“She has really good decision-making,” said Melissa Sharpe, Springfield College field hockey head coach. “You literally have a second or two to make a decision with the ball and she’s very good in that moment, deciding what to do with it and very accurate with her shots … That’s definitely one of her strengths that sets her apart.”
The freshman forward said she didn’t expect a lot coming into Springfield’s program. A mix of confidence and humility is something that Longmeadow field hockey had always hoped its players would walk away with.
“Coming into [collegiate competition] I honestly didn’t expect a lot. I think I’ve overdone what I’ve expected I think I’ve gotten more playing time than I’ve expected,” Ashe explained. “I’d never expect to be one of our leading scorers. I go into it thinking that … it’s so easy for coach [to make a change]. If I don’t play to my full potential it’s so easy to put someone else in. I just think of it as if I want to play, if I want to keep playing, I have to play my hardest or someone else is going to do the same thing, or do it better than me.”
At Springfield, Ashe is reminded of Simons’ teachings. Every game, before going onto the field.
After the starting lineup are announced, the team huddles in a circle. Sharpe makes her final remarks. About encouragement. About getting the job done.
She turns to her goalkeeper, Emmalie Drake. Drake counts to three.
Then everyone whispers.
“She who has the will to win cannot be beaten.”
There’s three claps in unison. The Pride points their sticks the middle of the circle, and cheer, loudly this time.
“The will to win comes from inside, let’s do it together, with desire and Pride! Gooooo Springfield!”
Then, the starters take the field.
“I play for that,” said Ashe. “If I need something to motivate me that’s what I’m thinking in my head. It reminds me how hard I need to work, how hard I learned I can work from Coach Simons.”
Photo courtesy of Sam Leventhal