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The resiliency of OL Reign’s Sam Hiatt

Hiatt reflected on 2021 as she prepares for the 2022 season.

OL Reign v Chicago Red Stars Photo by DANIEL BARTEL/ISI Photos/Getty Images

OL Reign’s Sam Hiatt was destined to play soccer. Her parents, Eric and Emily, were both college soccer players at Santa Clara University, where they met. Along with Brandi Chastain, Emily was part of the Broncos’ first two NCAA semifinal teams — serving as team captain, while Eric was on the school’s co-championship team in 1989.

They made their roots in the Greater Seattle area after college — returning to the region where Emily grew up — and both kept playing in adult leagues in the area. Sam, their first child who was born in 1998, would often accompany her parents to their games.

“When I would go to my games, I would need to bring her along and she would sit along the sideline in her stroller until halftime. Then she could run around,” Emily told The Seattle Times for a profile on then-Seattle Prep star Sam.

It came as no surprise then when the couple enrolled Sam in Little Kickers classes when she was 3 or 4. From there, her love of the game blossomed — taking her to Stanford University, where she won two NCAA championships, and now as a member of OL Reign.

Hiatt was drafted in the fourth round of the 2020 NWSL College Draft. While recovery from hip surgery meant she wouldn’t be able to join the team until mid-season, the COVID-19 pandemic wiped out any regular, full season for everyone. Hiatt made a cup of coffee appearance in the NWSL Fall Series later that year, but to her, the 2021 season was her true rookie year.

“It was awesome being able to play again and be part of a team. I remember our first scrimmage in pre-season last year was my first game since 2019, and it just felt great to be able to play again.”

Hiatt made nine appearances in 2021, all of them starts. That began when Farid Benstiti departed the club and assistant coach Sam Laity stepped up on an interim basis for four matches. During that stretch Hiatt partnered with Alana Cook as OL Reign’s centerback duo, leading to chatter that the pairing could be the club’s mainstay for the future. However, a back injury and COVID protocol designations unfortunately resulted in an abrupt end to Hiatt’s first full year as a professional soccer player.

“What I will remember and take away the most was the resiliency of our team. We had three different coaches, which wasn’t an easy thing, and we were second-bottom at the table. I remember we just kept talking about how it didn’t matter where we were at the beginning of the season, it mattered how we finished. Obviously we had a great run there, [finishing] second from top of the table, and I think that’s something we can be really proud of as a group. I think we did a great job of working through anything that came our way and being adaptable and bouncing back from different things. But I also think we did have higher goals for ourselves and that’ll be something we’re looking forward to moving into this season.”

So physically, where is Sam Hiatt at?

“I’m happy to say I’m feeling good now. I took some time off in December. It was a long season — we reported at the end of January last year and went through November, so I was able to take some time off and let the body and mind recharge. I’m feeling good, it’s been long enough where I’m now rested and ready to get back to it.”

Having growing up in the Puget Sound region, Hiatt had more than an idea about OL Reign. She recalls watching their matches at Memorial Stadium while chasing her own dream of playing soccer professionally. Many dream about playing for their hometown team across whatever their sport is, and a lot of athletes get to do that at some point in their careers. For Hiatt, becoming a member of the Reign meant she could experience a strong, well-knit culture and locker room as much as contribute to it.

“It looked great on the outside looking in, and now that I’m a part of it, I can confirm it’s a pretty special thing to be a part of.”

Of course having watched Megan Rapinoe, Jess Fishlock, and Lu Barnes play from the stands, Hiatt knew the standards being set by the three Reign Originals.

“How they’ve kept that culture going, because that speaks a lot to the things they’ve been doing to keep that energy, competitiveness, but also the fun everyone has can be chalked up to them,” she noted. “So learning from them in terms of what type of player I want to be on the field and also what type teammate and figure in the locker room I want to be, as well.”

The culture set by that trio and back room staff was paramount in the team’s ability to not have their season go completely off the rails when there was the first coaching change mid-season, along with the bigger league-wide reckoning over the the safety and well-being of players which had long been compromised at some clubs.

“It was a very safe space for us to talk about and process whatever was going on, and we were all on the same page where we had trust and respecting each other and the safe space that we created,” Hiatt recollected. “So I think we were able to adapt to whatever challenge or situation was going on, whether that was within our own team or throughout the league. So even when things were rough, regardless of why, it felt good that we were able to walk into the locker room and I knew everyone had my back. I could talk to someone if I needed, or if I didn’t want to then I didn’t have to, either. The leaders on our team did a really great job of creating that space, as well as our staff in being there to support us in whatever fashion.”

OL Reign can still boast of having the most players remaining from the inaugural 2013 NWSL season rosters. Over the years other NWSL and international veterans have come and gone, adding to the wealth of experience and knowledge a young player like Hiatt can learn from. When the club took on loan from parent club Olympique Lyonnais forward Eugénie Le Sommer, midfielder Dzsenifer Marozsán, and goalkeeper Sarah Bouhaddi, we’re talking about prolific talents that anyone can point at and say: that is what next level looks like.

Hiatt’s reflected on having the Lyon trio as her teammates last season. “Just being around them elevated my game, but also everyone else’s at practice. Sometimes you’d see Marozsán do something in training and we’d all just look at each other and go: ‘How?! How is she real?!’ So going up against them but also seeing the things they do, seeing how they think was definitely — I’ve only had a short career so far — but definitely a career highlight being around them. Playing with them was amazing, for me as a young defender to be able to go against the likes of Marozsán and Le Sommer and have them running at me, I think I grew a lot just getting through that experience. I remember one of our first trainings, I didn’t know Le Sommer very well and we were doing defenders vs. forwards. At one point she mentioned something to me on the side while everyone else was getting water, and I thought that was so cool. She came in only a couple of days ago and was already helping me out.”

Hiatt recalled the side chat with Le Sommer was about instructing what she as a defender could do to try and stop a Le Sommer attacking run, humorously noting that stopping Eugénie Le Sommer on the field is easier said than done.

The 2022 season is just a couple of weeks away. Some players have started to return to their respective NWSL cities with training camps set to begin on February 1. The NWSL Challenge Cup will once again open the competitive slate of games, and then the NWSL regular season will be here. OL Reign overcame a lot on and off the field in 2021. Falling short of their goal and losing in the NWSL Playoffs semifinal round of course left a bitter taste in the mouth of everyone at the club, but Hiatt is looking forward to training camp and getting the full experience of being coached by Laura Harvey.

Harvey returned to the club last August, and while she was able to continue the club’s climb up the standings to a second-place finish to the regular season, there wasn’t much room to have concentrated discussions with each player and develop specific plans for their development. That, in particular, has Hiatt excited for when she reports to preseason next month.

“Preseason, you can work on different things and I feel coaches can tailor a plan because you have a few weeks without a game, and you can really focus on tactics or trainings that you want to do. When you’re in-season, it’s a lot of ‘we play this game, we recover, and we look onto the next game’. Even if there’s a bye week, you still don’t have that concentrated time of just pure training like you have in preseason. I’ve loved learning from Laura last year, she’s so smart, but I’m really excited to what she does with the preseason. I feel like we’re going to learn a lot.”

There’s been plenty of news ahead of the 2022 NWSL season, and no doubt the biggest news to date for OL Reign is their return to Seattle, specifically calling Lumen Field their new, permanent home. Last August’s game as part of the Pacific Northwest Experience doubleheader was a long time coming and a landmark moment for the club. Hiatt unfortunately did not dress for the match as she was dealing with a back injury at the time. However the moment was not lost on her and she gushed about looking forward to this season, walking out of that southeast tunnel and onto the field as an OL Reign player, her hometown club, in a stadium where she’s seen many other big sporting events.

“It puts the biggest smile on my face when I think about it. I’ll be driving and think, we get to play at Lumen Field... that’s our home stadium next year. As someone who grew up as a Seattle sports fan, going to Sonics games back in the day, Mariners, Seahawks, Sounders, vividly remembering where I sat at the inaugural Sounders game, it’s just the coolest thing that it’s going to be our home stadium as well.”

Hiatt remembered when her and her teammates were informed of the move to Lumen Field before it was publicly announced, shrieking and saying, “Oh my goodness!” with teammate and fellow defender, Madison Hammond.

“It’s not something I ever had thought possible — not that I thought it was impossible, but just never imagined as a young girl growing up in Bellevue, playing for Crossfire, that someday our home field would be where the Seahawks and Sounders play. Words can’t really describe it, but I just can’t wait for that first game (this season) and all the ones that come after it.”

Last May, Hiatt was a part of Washington State Legends of Soccer’s panel where she and other pros shared advice and stories on their respective journeys. You can watch the whole panel here, and this is what Hiatt said about what makes soccer in Washington state special.

“I think we have some great fans, and I think the soccer community in general outside of the players — the people who come out to get to the games and the supporters — just create a really cool environment. It’s always been fun. I’ve been a fan going to Sounders games and Reign games, and so I’m excited to be on the other side of it now.”

The path to becoming a professional athlete has many twists and turns, and trying to embark on it in the era of a pandemic is a dynamic that will stick with a lot of athletes, like Sam Hiatt. Much like she used the word resiliency when reflecting on her team’s collective effort last year, it definitely applies to her time thus far as professional soccer player. It’s that resiliency that has local kid Sam Hiatt very excited about what 2022 can be for her, playing for her hometown club.

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