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The face of resilience, Maya Hayes battles back for Sky Blue FC

After injuries in consecutive seasons, Hayes looks to extend personal, professional success with Sky Blue FC.

Maya Hayes fights to maintain possession against Boston
Trey Madara (Brotherly Game)

From the very start, New Jersey native and Sky Blue FC forward/defender Maya Hayes loved sports.

“I was always a tomboy. I was always playing whatever sport was out at recess and after care or the after-school program. I was always playing football with the guys, playing basketball, whatever was on that day,” she said.

That love of sports and natural athleticism led to skateboarding, baseball and her first sport, basketball, which she began playing at the age of four in a league where she was the only girl playing with older boys.

Eventually, it also led her to soccer. Compared to some of her colleagues in the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) who had a ball at their feet as soon as they could walk, Hayes was a relative latecomer to the sport of soccer.

“I think I started playing when I was around six or seven,” Hayes said. “I started doing the town league, just played at one of the local parks every Saturday or something like that. I think I started doing travel, actual travel team stuff, when I was like nine or 10 I think.”

Hayes’s “late” introduction to the sport was because her mother, a single parent at the time, worked in New York City, and it was difficult for them to figure out a way to get Hayes to the many practices and games. However, she heard her friends who played soccer talking about the sport, and her desire to be a part of it eventually won out.

Before long, Hayes was joining her friends on the soccer field, being put on her rec league team’s back line as a center back, although she refused to play the position the way it usually is played.

“I was literally dribbling up the entire field and scoring goals, and Coach tried to put me up top at forward and I didn't like it. I liked running the full length of the field to score, so it never actually worked out when I was playing forward. I actually preferred to be at back so I could run all the way up,” she claimed.

Before long, Hayes’s talent on the soccer field became apparent, and she began realizing that maybe, just maybe, her future could lie within the sport.

“I think around seventh, eighth grade going into my freshman year in high school, once I realized you could actually like go to school to play soccer, I think that's when it kind of clicked for me that it was something, it wasn't just something that I was doing just because it was fun, that it could actually kind of take you places,” she said.

Around the same time, during her freshman year at Newark Academy, Hayes received her first call-up to a youth national team, an opportunity she didn’t even realize was a possibility.

“I was actually very surprised when I got the call because I didn't even know it existed. Obviously you hear about the full women's national team all the time, but I didn't know that there were youth programs that you could even get invited to,” she said.

Along with her best friend Meg Morris, currently of the Portland Thorns and Hayes’s club teammate at the time, Hayes traveled to California to participate in the U-15 national team training camp. It would be the first of many call-ups to the youth national teams for Hayes.

At Newark Academy, Hayes was a two-sport athlete, lettering in both basketball and soccer all four years. In soccer, she dominated on the field, scoring 92 goals in her high school career, 38 of which were scored in her senior season. As a three-time conference MVP, Hayes helped her school’s team win the New Jersey Prep B state championship her senior year, earning her a Parade All-American accolade as well.

During her high school years, Hayes also won the New Jersey State Cup three times with her club team, the Montclair Aristocats, which she played on with current Sky Blue FC teammate Kelly Conheeney.

Hayes’s successes with her high school and club teams, as well as her time playing in the youth national team system, earned her the attention of many college soccer programs around the country, many of whom were eager to have the soccer standout join their ranks. However, one college, Penn State, won out almost from the very start.

After visiting Penn State during her freshman year in high school, Hayes fell in love with Penn State’s campus and the genuineness of the team, but it was something that Erica Walsh, head coach of the women’s soccer program, said to her during that visit that stuck with her.

“I remember her saying to me, 'All right, you got your first visit under your belt and from now on you can go and see other schools, and if you find yourself comparing every school to Penn State, then I think you know where you want to be.' And that's kind of how it went. When I would go to every other school, I'd be like, 'Yeah, this is great, but Penn State has this,’ so that was kind of the light bulb that went off,” Hayes said of her decision to attend Penn State.

Once again, Hayes proved one of the top players in her level of soccer, taking the collegiate soccer world by storm in just her sophomore year in 2011. That year, Hayes led the nation in goals with 31 and points with 70, setting both a Penn State and Big Ten record for points in a single season. She was also one of three finalists for the Missouri Athletic Club (MAC) Hermann Trophy, the award for the nation’s top collegiate soccer player, the Big Ten Forward of the Year, and an NSCAA First Team All-American.

Although 2011 was Hayes’s most successful year as an individual player, 2012 was the most successful season for Hayes on a team level. Hayes missed the first part of her season with the Nittany Lions while with the U-20 women’s national team competing in the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup in Japan. Scoring four goals in that tournament, including a hat trick against Ghana in the group stage, Hayes helped the United States bring home the U-20 World Cup title.

Returning to Penn State, which was already 10 games in and to conference play in their regular season, Hayes immediately began making an impact. In her 20 appearances for the team that season, she scored 16 goals and made 6 assists. That season, Penn State made their fourth visit to the NCAA College Cup, progressing to the national championship match. However, the Nittany Lions would fall just short of their first ever title, falling to the University of North Carolina 4-1.

“For that year to end the way that it did, it was very amazing,” Hayes said of 2012. “Not many people can say they went to a national championship and won a world cup in the same season, so I'm very grateful for that year, and I took a lot from that experience.”

Hayes would finish out her collegiate career at Penn State having played 89 games with 80 starts, scoring 71 goals, tallying 21 assists and recording 163 points.

Because of her standout seasons at both the collegiate and youth international levels, Hayes was taken as the sixth overall pick by Sky Blue FC in the 2014 collegiate draft, and the New Jersey native returned to her home state for her professional career.

In her rookie season with Sky Blue, Hayes played in 23 matches, starting in 13 of them and tallying one goal and one assist on the season. She was poised to have an even more successful sophomore season in 2015, but an MCL sprain suffered partway through the season limited Hayes to just 13 games and one assist for her club team that year.

Hayes battled back from the injury before season’s end, and she, like the rest of the team, weathered the rocky off season leading into the 2016 season. With the large amount of turnover the team experienced, Hayes saw her role on the team change dramatically.

“My first year, I remember saying that my goals for my rookie season was just to be a sponge. I knew there was going to be a bunch of information thrown at me from a lot of different people, and it was just to just be a sponge and soak it all up and really take it all in and really implement it the best that I could,” she said. “And I think now being my third year on the team with a lot of turnover in terms of players or coaching staff included, I definitely think my role has changed a little bit, into more of a leader role to be a little more vocal and to maybe lead instead of so much soaking up, to maybe be one of the ones putting that information out there.”

Having embraced her new role, Hayes began leading her team on and off the field. Just five games into the 2016 season, Hayes was leading Sky Blue in goals scored. However, in the May 21 match against the Western New York Flash in Rochester, Hayes suffered another MCL sprain, once again sidelining her for several weeks.

“I was really bummed when I first did it because I knew exactly what it was and what the process was going to be like having done it last year. It wasn't fun,” Hayes said of the injury.

After missing four games because of the injury, Hayes saw her return to the field on July 2, subbing in for Catherine Zimmerman in the 73rd minute of Sky Blue’s 1-2 road loss to the Portland Thorns. She has subbed into every match since, seeing the most minutes since her injury in Sky Blue’s 1-2 loss to the Washington Spirit on July 31 when she again subbed in for Zimmerman in the 30th minute.

Now that Sky Blue is preparing to return from the month-long Olympics window built into the NWSL schedule this season, Hayes is confident in her health.

“My sprain this time was a little bit worse than it was last year when I did it, but I came back quicker this time than I did last time,” she said. “I'm glad to be one hundred percent healthy at this point and having no issues.”

Hayes is also confident in Sky Blue’s chances of making the playoffs this season, something that seemed like a long shot for the team at the start of the season but is currently within reach.

“We say to ourselves we have seven games left. That's five regular season games and two playoff games. And that's very much our mindset going into this last sort of month and a half or so of this season. And that's definitely the mindset that we'll continue to have game in and game out,” she said. “I'm not going to say I can predict anything because I'm not psychic, but as a team our goal is to finish number one at the end of the season.”

With players like Hayes on the roster, that goal is definitely much more attainable for Sky Blue.