by Andrew Garda

Even though the Montclair High School girls soccer team has a new coach, there is an air of familiarity to preseason practices.

Many of the players already know head coach Ashley Hammond from club soccer circles, and he knows the players. That makes sorting out early positions much easier for the coaching staff.

“It’s been very advantageous in terms of the organization of preseason,” Hammond said during a recent practice. “I don’t have a preconceived notion of who they are, but I certainly have a sense of their ability. So, I certainly haven’t been stabbing around in the dark thinking, ‘Where does she go, where does she go?’”

The trick for a coach who already knows his players in a different setting, Hammond said, is not to trap yourself into a corner with early decisions.

“The key is not to pigeon-hole them and think that just because I put them there, I must have been right.  Give them their chance here on the field, because this is where it really matters,” he said.

That philosophy also comes into play with games and play on the field. Hammond said that there are three components to a game — the coaches, the players and the game itself.

Nobody can really control the game — weather, officiating and condition of the playing surface are mostly out of the hands of both the coaching staff and the players.

What can be controlled is what the players and coaches do or don’t do, and how they react after the fact.

“The players ... sometimes they get stuff wrong and sometimes the coaches can get stuff wrong,” Hammond said. “So, as long as we can recognize that any one of those three components can be wrong or right, we’re able to make good judgements.”

Hammond said that too often, coaches assume players are wrong 100 percent of the time. To him, that just doesn’t add up.

“I feel like with three components, each with 33 percent, there’s an equal likelihood that they could be right or wrong. So, working on that premise, the players trust me, or trust us, because they know we’ll recognize when we’re not right, as they have to then have to take responsibility when they don’t get it right. When they get it right, we praise and when we get it right we pat ourselves on the back and move on.  When we get it wrong, we go away and try to think about how we do it again properly,” he said.

In terms of the player component, Hammond has a pretty young team, but also one with plenty of experience. Many of the players at all three levels of the team — freshman, junior varsity and varsity — have club experience and have been playing at a high level outside of high school.

There’s also the group, which remains from last season when very few juniors stayed on the team, forcing former coach Eric Weintraub to play many sophomores and freshmen.

That means that while Jillian O’Toole and Hanan Abdellatif are senior captains, several of the other core players are underclassmen.

Both Sydney Masur and Claire Manning are sophomores, but saw plenty of work last season. So did fellow sophomore Katie Giordano, who was following in the footsteps of her older sister, Nora.

Rising sophomore Katie Giordano will be an important part of Montclair's team this year and head coach Ashley Hammond will look to her to help lead his squad.
Rising sophomore Katie Giordano will be an important part of Montclair's team this year and head coach Ashley Hammond will look to her to help lead his squad.

With Nora playing lacrosse at Lehigh University this year, the younger Giordano has a chance to fill her sister’s shoes.

Hammond has already been excited by the hard work the team has shown, led by O’Toole — who has committed to William & Mary — and Abdellatif.

“I was very fortunate, when I inherited the team, that Jillian was already named the captain,” Hammond said. “I knew Jill for a lot of years through club and whatever, and she is quite brilliant. She’s been an unbelievable leader throughout the preseason. Hanan had a great preseason so far and she’s had a good attitude. I’ve known her for a lot of years too and she’s been really terrific through the preseason.”

Hammond is quick to point out that, while there are four or five players he could name who have really stood out, nobody has played poorly at all and he’s been very pleased with their play.

His biggest task, Hammond said, is to make high school soccer as enjoyable for the girls as club soccer is.  Too often, he said, when asked how high school soccer is going, Hammond has had girls say they can’t wait to get back to club.

He thinks that’s a shame.

“I think my number one job is to make sure when your club coach asks you how’s high school, you say “I love it,” Hammond said.

There are a few ways he is hoping to do that. First, as he mentioned before, he is going to engage his players and allow for the fact that sometimes they are right and he is wrong. He’s still coach, but he’s willing to hear them.

Secondly, Hammond wants to get away from the common high school game philosophy of kicking the ball downfield and scrambling after it, hoping to score a goal.

Instead, he wants the team to play the game the way they would on their club team.

“The vast majority of clubs right now, and I mean the vast majority not one in particular, play a very technical passing organized game where they don’t just smash it down the field. [Players] come to high school and it’s functional. Coaches just have to win games and so it’s a territorial game versus a tactical, technical game.”

As an example of what he wants to see, Hammond points out a pass by O’Toole.

“Jillian  just played a lovely ball out of the back there, because that’s what she’d do in club,” he explained. “I don’t want to be screaming at her to get it all the way down the field and we’ll try to get goals. I think the philosophy has to be to try to replicate good club teams and that will go a long way towards having my players say they love high school.”

Hammond said anything else is really not serving his player’s futures.

“These girls are with me for three months. That’s a quarter of their soccer year,” he said. “For most of the girls who are top level, they’re year round players now and they’re looking to play in college. If a quarter of your next four years, which is one whole year, is spent with me and all I’ve had them do is smash it down the field, I’ve done them a disservice and they’ve done themselves a disservice.”

Hammond feels most of his team could have a chance to play soccer in college and to not help them play in a way which colleges want them to play is a bad idea.

“You can’t take a year out of your soccer career to play crap football and think it’s going to be productive,” he said. “So my job is to make sure this is productive for them and that means playing football.”

At the end of the day, if he can do that, Hammond is hoping the next time his players are asked how they are enjoying their high school team, they can say they love it.