Strong rebound: Cross capitalizes on second stint with Hornets

By Brad Fauber

WINCHESTER — Shenandoah University women’s field hockey coach Ashley Smeltzer-Kraft says senior forward Ashley Cross is like a “bulldog” when she gets in around the goal.

Cross simply has a knack for scoring goals, Smeltzer-Kraft says, and her physical playing style, which often leads to Cross “plowing” through defenders, makes the senior a tough mark for opposing teams.

“She is so incredibly athletic and strong. It’s really hard to defend her,” Smeltzer-Kraft said Tuesday before the Hornets’ home game against Frostburg State. “I think she’s just brought this power to our forward line that’s just hard to stop for other teams. She’s meant a great deal to us. She puts the ball in the goal and she has a nontraditional way of doing it, which makes it even harder for them to handle.”

That physicality has served Cross well over the last couple years.

Last season, Cross was named the Old Dominion Athletic Conference Player of the Year, the first athlete at Shenandoah to earn such an honor since the school joined the ODAC in 2012.

This fall, Cross has continued to be the Hornets’ top scoring threat, as she is the leading goal scorer for Shenandoah through 12 games.

It’s hard to imagine now, but Cross’ college field hockey career nearly ended following her sophomore season in 2011.

Cross, now a graduate student working towards a Master’s degree in business administration, opted to quit the sport that she had been playing since fifth grade and sat out the 2012 field hockey season for a combination of reasons.

“It was my junior year and I just wanted to focus more on the classroom, and at the time I wasn’t getting as much playing time as I would’ve liked,” said Cross, who also competed on Shenandoah’s women’s lacrosse team for all four years as an undergraduate student. ” I just decided to focus on lacrosse and decided that my skills were better in that sport.”

Cross, spurred on by the arrival of Smeltzer-Kraft as the Hornets’ new field hockey coach and the desire to finish her college career as a two-sport athlete, had a change of heart prior to the 2013 season and rejoined the Hornets as a senior.

“To have her come back was awesome,” Smeltzer-Kraft said. “I was really excited when she came into my office and she said ‘Coach, I really want to give field hockey a try again.’ It didn’t take her long to kind of morph into the player that she is now.”

Smeltzer-Kraft chose to move Cross from her customary midfield position — where Cross had played all through high school and in her first two seasons at Shenandoah — to the forward position, and the results were instantaneous. Cross led the ODAC last season in goals (16) and scoring (34 points).

But following the 2013 field hockey season, Cross had another decision to make — since she sat out in 2012, Cross had one more year of athletic eligibility.

Cross chose to return to SU.

“I always knew there was an extra year of eligibility, but it wasn’t something that I was going to take advantage of until last December when I started talking about it with my parents, saying that I wanted to pursue my Master’s degree and I might as well come back,” Cross said. “Then this past summer I actually didn’t decide I was going to play until like a month before preseason. I was talking to coach and talking to all the girls, making sure that everyone was OK with me coming back, because it was going to be hard to manage my graduate-level classes with practices and games.”

Smeltzer-Kraft said she was concerned at first about Cross’ ability to balance the field hockey with her increased school workload.

“She met with her professors and she said, ‘Coach, I think this is something I can do,'” Smeltzer-Kraft said. “How do you say no to the returning Player of the Year for the conference? It’s kind of hard to.”

Smeltzer-Kraft said the Hornets’ coaching staff chose to lighten Cross’ leadership role on the field hockey team, naming her an “assistant captain” this season. Cross typically misses two practices a week due to schedule conflicts, Smeltzer-Kraft said, but the head coach praised Cross’ commitment and intensity level when she does hit the field for the Hornets.

Even with the potential distractions, Cross still has scored nine goals and 20 total points for Shenandoah.

Cross’ physical play has been a big reason for that continued goal-scoring success, but she may also have a better understanding of shot selection than most. Oddly enough, Cross served as the goalkeeper for SU’s women’s lacrosse team for four seasons, earning three all-conference accolades along the way.

“Even though they’re not the same, goalie-wise, in field hockey and lacrosse, she knows the tendencies and things like that,” Smeltzer-Kraft said. “She knows where to put the ball, where to shoot and that kind of thing. And she’s the first one to go down after the game and congratulate her goalkeepers. She gets that.”

Behind Cross’ leadership, the Hornets are off to an 8-4 start this season after beating Frostburg State, 4-1, on Tuesday. More importantly, Shenandoah — which has its sights set on an ODAC championship — is 3-0 in conference play.

The Hornets finished second in the regular season conference standings last season before falling to Randolph-Macon College in the ODAC tournament semifinals, and Cross said she is eager to help the team make a deeper postseason run this fall, which will be her last athletic season at Shenandoah.

“I just know that I want to help our team win an ODAC championship,” Cross said. “That’s what I want. I’ve been here for five years now and this will be my eighth season as a Hornet, and we haven’t gotten that yet. I’ve competed in a lacrosse ODAC championship and a USA South championship, but we still haven’t walked away with a victory. I want a championship ring.”

Contact staff writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or bfauber@nvdaily.com