by Andrew Garda

A familiar face will take charge of the varsity girls soccer program at Montclair High School this fall, as veteran club, scholastic and collegiate coach Ashley Hammond will take the reigns of the Mountie program.

Hammond replaces Eric Weintraub, who was not retained after a two-year stint in charge of the Mountie program.

The new coach brings a wealth of soccer experience from which he can draw upon. A 1994 Montclair State University graduate, Hammond went on to coach the boys soccer team at Montclair Kimberley Academy from 1996 to 2000, and served as head coach for men’s soccer at Division I Manhattan College for three seasons. For most of the past two decades, he has been a well-known face in the youth club soccer community, working first with the Montclair United Soccer Club, then spinning off to run his own club, Sports Domain FC, which he said he recently sold.

Currently the co-owner and director of the Sports  Domain Academy facility in Clifton, Hammond says getting the MHS job was a dream come true.

“It’s cliche to say, but I’ve always wanted this job,” he said. “For the vast majority of my professional career, I’ve worked with female teams. My daughter played four years at the high school, and was a county champion four years in a row.”

Hammond had applied for the job without success when Rob McOmish stepped down following the 2016 season, but he is pleased to have another chance at continuing a successful Montclair High tradition.

So far, he likes what he has seen when observing players either during voluntary captain’s practices or at club games when he has had a chance to watch his future players in action.

“I’ve had a chance to witness them and they are young,” he said with a laugh. “They’re definitely young, but what I really love about high school sports is the kids — not just the girls, but all of them — really like to play for their high school. So I’ve really enjoyed seeing the attitude towards this and the desire to represent their high school. It makes me feel really good about the young generation still getting a buzz out of that.

“My job is to harness that desire and it’s down to me to get that right, because they come enthusiastic, they come wanting to play for the high school, they come with pride in the school. And that’s what I think is going to carry them through, if I can get my bits and pieces right with organization and practice and the right fitness and training.”

Hammond said that the team will have to have a very solid plan going into any game.

“We can’t just walk in there and think we’re going to beat them because we’re Montclair High School.”

One thing the team lacks, Hammond said, is a solid option at striker.

Hammond said that Montclair has a long tradition of producing good strikers. Hammond pointed to Meg Morris, who went on from MHS to play at North Carolina as well as with the U20 national team and currently plays with the Portland Thorns FC of the National Woman’s Soccer League, as well as Maya Pitts, who played well at Syracuse and now is playing pro soccer in Sweden. He also talked about Maya Hayes, a West Orange striker who played club soccer in Montclair and went on to play at Penn State, the U18 and U20 US national teams and Sky Blue FC of the NWSL.

“I don’t feel we have someone I would classify as an out-and-out striker,” Hammond said. “Someone who is just a natural predator. So finding goals is going to be interesting, I think.”

That means that the team will likely center game plans on good defensive play.

“We’re going to have to be incredibly well organized in the back,” Hammond said. “I do feel pretty good about the back three and back four that I’m going to end up with. I feel really good about center-mid.”

With an organized and effective back line, the Mounties will aim to win the games they are supposed to win, while staying close in the games that are against tougher opponents and look for that game-changing goal.

“Try and keep some of those bigger, better programs close,” Hammond said. “I think like a lot of teams, if you’re close in the second half, you’re in the game. If we’re chasing teams, it’s going to be hard for us, but if we’re in the game with teams, up one-nil or close, I think we’ll be OK because the spirit is excellent. The girls have a magnificent attitude about them.”

Good defense or not, the Mounties still need to score goals, which means the key to pre-season will likely be finding that striker Hammond lacks right now.

With 70 players already signed up, he will have ample chance to find that diamond in the rough.

“Everyone’s looking for that ‘golden striker,’” he said when mentioning Pitts, Morris and Hayes. “These are all kids who have played for me and played for Montclair High School who were real good finishers and goal scorers. If I could find a Maya Pitts, a Meg Morris, or a Maya Hayes — one of those amongst this lot, and develop them, I think we’ll do just fine.”