Samantha Hiatt still remembers her first National Team call-up. It was September of 2014 at the launch of a new U.S. Under-18 Women’s National Team cycle. She remembers the nerves stepping onto the field, wondering if she belonged among the nation’s top players.
Most of all, she remembers then-head coach April Heinrichs’ parting words at the end of camp. Heinrichs told the 24 players gathered in Chula Vista, Calif. that in three years, they would stand as the oldest eligible players for the 2018 FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup, and thus, in prime position to make that roster. The decree provoked an immediate emotional response in Hiatt.
“I wanted to be on that team, I wanted to be there,” Hiatt said. “In 2018, that’s going to be us, and now, here we are.”
The knowledge gained at that first camp presented Hiatt with a distant but direct goal. Her path to France this summer, however, turned out to be anything but straight. Due to injury, she sat on the sideline for most of her collegiate season at Stanford and missed World Cup qualifying in Trinidad & Tobago. Once healthy, her positive outlook and on-field talent carried her through. As she finally returned fully to training camps towards the end of the cycle, she continued to impress the coaches and inspire her teammates. Now, she’s wearing the captain’s armband for the USA in France.
“She’s the sunshine of the team,” Klimkova said. “She’s a very positive person, she takes care of people. She makes them happy. She’s also a leader on the field from her position as a center defender. In difficult situations, she took the leadership step and tried to encourage people. It was always, ‘we will get better, we will make it,’ She was the one who always believed in the happy ending. That’s her style on the field and the same it’s her style off the field.”
A steady presence at center back, one of her most valuable assets is her ability to communicate. As she directs the defense and helps the USA stay disciplined in its shape, she holds down the back line as an invaluable ball-winner and anchor.
On-field communication is a natural extension of Hiatt’s off-the-field personality. She is constantly chatting with her teammates, checking in on their well-being. The relationships she forges everyday translate once the U-20s step on the pitch.
“Off the field, the chemistry and the relationship you have with people, really helps and affects how things go on the field,” Hiatt said. “I’m just a pretty happy, positive, smiling person, so that helps. Building relationships with people off the field really helps so that you have that mutual trust and respect when you’re on the field in situations where you need that trust and respect.”
At her first major event with the U-20s, last spring’s La Manga tournament in Spain, it was Hiatt’s relentless positivity that boosted the U.S. team. After a tough 2-1 loss to Germany in the USA’s second match, she stepped up to rally the troops and ignite the team before their final game against World Cup host France. The result: a 2-0 victory.
“We responded well,” Hiatt said. “The Germany game was difficult, we struggled, but we were able to rally and play well in the next game. It was a good experience for us having to turn around from not playing great, fix things and improve for the next game.”
A few months after La Manga, Hiatt’s injury troubles began. She hurt her hip at a domestic camp and missed a pair of friendlies against Japan. After the U-20s travelled to England and Germany, she arrived in Palo Alto for her first season with Stanford following a transfer from Boston College. In the Cardinal’s third preseason game, Hiatt suffered an ankle sprain that kept her out for a few weeks. Back on the field at the end of October, her medical strike three came against Oregon State, when a high ankle sprain and torn ligament ended her season early. The diagnosis meant Hiatt would miss major time for the first time in her young career.
True to form, every difficulty with her injury meant finding the silver linings for Hiatt. Rather than lament the four weeks in a walking boot, she celebrated each day being closer to its removal. While she didn’t play in Stanford’s National Championship run, she rushed the field in Orlando with her teammates all the same.
“It definitely tested my positivity. All I wanted to do was be on the field,” Hiatt said. “It just highlighted how there are ways to be a good teammate even if you’re not necessarily the ones on the field. It really made me focus on what can I do from the sideline, helping people out, cheering, being positive from the sidelines, it just highlighted that for me how really it’s everyone working towards a goal.”
It was even harder that Hiatt’s kept having to adapt her return to play schedule. At first, she hoped to be back for December’s College Cup. Instead, her first soccer action in months came at the U-20 WNT’s New Year’s camp. She hoped to make the World Cup qualifying roster, but wasn’t quite ready and made the trip to T&T as an alternate.
Hiatt has been involved in every training camp since World Cup qualifying. She finally made it back on the field with the U-20s in April against Italy, back in La Manga, the same place where she made her sterling first impression.
In just her third full international game back with the U-20s after overcoming the ankle issues, she took on team’s captaincy against France. Before the World Cup started, her teammates gave her a resounding vote of confidence when they selected her to lead the charge at the World Cup.
“She’s the glue of the team,” Klimkova said. “She brings positivity, belief, trust, she puts the team together. It’s not about her, she’s the big teammate for everyone.”
When Hiatt led the team onto the field for the USA’s first game against Japan, she reached the goal that had driven over the last four years. Her experiences have paid dividends. Just as she rallied the troops in La Manga, the U.S. responded to a tough 1-0 loss against Japan with a resounding 6-0 victory over Paraguay. Now, the U-20s stand ready to take on Spain with a quarterfinal berth at stake.
“We have some big goals for this tournament,” Hiatt said. “I would love to win a World Cup with this team. That’s what we’re here working towards, but we really are just looking at this tournament as one game at a time. I’m really proud of how far we’ve come as a team.”